Sunday, July 21, 2024

The message Sunday on a sign at Dragon Pizza in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The week’s viral video kerfuffle in Davis Square between Barstool Sports media CEO and social media personality David Portnoy and Dragon Pizza owner Charlie Redd raises the question: What makes for a fair restaurant review? There isn’t one way, but varying approaches generate different levels of trust in a conclusion.

For those who missed it, Portnoy, who runs Barstool Sports out of New York City, was back in Somerville – he grew up in Massachusetts and after college lived in the square, branded the American Paris of the 1990s – to bring his “One Bite Pizza Review” to Pinocchio’s, Avenue kitchen + bar, Mortadella Head, Mike’s and Dragon. (Several of these have been featured in the Day’s What We’re Having column).

The “protocol,” as Portnoy calls it, is the same: Pick up a pre-ordered pie, come out on the sidewalk where a crew has a camera rolling, take a bite and issue a one-to-10 scale rating. It’s not really one bite, as Portnoy takes a good chomp of the tip, mumbles an initial reaction, takes a bite of the crust and unceremoniously dumps the slice back into the box, further addressing the camera with his conclusions. In some cases – Mike’s and Mortadella – it was apparent they knew Portnoy was coming, revealed by a flyer of his face on the box or extra free food. Most of the videos are two to four minutes, but the Dragon video turned into an eff-bomb shouting match between Portnoy and Redd and went on for nearly 10 minutes. If it wasn’t for a four-girl smackdown in a Pittsburgh port-a-potty, it would have won the Web last week after being posted Thursday.

To be fair, Portnoy, who’s been called out for racism, misogyny and sexual objectification of women (Barstool rose on its frat boy spins on pop culture and sports and scantily clad “hot girls” section) and controversial gambling ventures, does seem to have reasonable pizza acumen (his likening of Avenue’s Detroit-style pizza to an offensive lineman was on target, though I disagree with his one-bite conclusion). And I appreciate that he samples the crust. (And, as he claimed in the shouting match, Portnoy did set up a relief fund during Covid that raised tens of millions of dollars for small businesses.)

But in this food sampler’s opinion, one bite, especially from a cold pie – Portnoy admits the Dragon pie had been sitting – is a tough swallow as far as fair assessment methodology goes. Granted, pizza-tasting needn’t be as nuanced as, say, assessing the flakiness of a halibut fillet with a verde sauce or the consistency of the shallots in a coq au vin wine reduction. At Cambridge Day, the What We’re Having column maintains a do-no-harm policy, something cooked up during Covid when the industry was struggling, and something we adhere to. What that means is that if What We’re Having comes to your eatery, tries your food and feels it’s not up to par, we write nothing. We’ll try to come back a few times to make sure it wasn’t just an off night, which happens; changes in the kitchen also can result in wide quality swings. Few in the industry can hold onto total consistency over time.

Portnoy in theory abides by the general food review playbook, coming in to sample as the general public does and experience a chef’s creations like the next person in line or across the room. But clearly, the nature of Portnoy’s reviews and his notoriety has an impact. Most food reviewers, especially those for major outlets such as The New York Times or Boston Globe, book reservations or order takeout under pseudonyms. When I was at the Boston Phoenix, the lead food critic published under a pen name to avoid being outed while dining out and potentially receive preferential service.

Portnoy’s national news-making – which many have wondered was fully or partially staged – exploded on the day of announced cuts of more than 25 percent of the Barstool workforce. If that’s not an apt distraction (look at the hand waving here, not over there) or a perfect time to be away from the mothership as it takes on water, then color me contaminated greens. Even more opportunistically, it serves as a nuclearized advertisement for Portnoy’s One Bite pizza fest this month in Brooklyn, which the event site bills as “90 percent sold out.”

Redd, who has been a critic of the Portnoy one-bite review because of the negative impact on small businesses, may be onto something. A barrage of one-star reviews of Dragon Pizza on Yelp have followed that essentially echo Portnoy’s assessment verbatim, as if the troops were lined up and sent in. Yelp stopped posting new reviews, and Redd told Shira Laucharoen at that he’d received death threats.

To better understand the effect, I walked by Dragon Pizza midafternoon on Sunday – not the busiest time of the day, but nearly every seat was occupied in the pizza parlor side (the Dragon’s Lair, where you can play bar games and imbibe adult beverages, wasn’t open), and there were eight to 10 folks in line to order pie or milling about waiting for their food to come out. Perhaps the sidewalk scuffle is a win-win? By then, Dragon Pizza wasn’t responding to requests for comment. On the door was a sign: “We Are Not Talking About It; Orders Only.”

And while Portnoy gave Dragon Pizza a 6.4, Mike’s – which Portnoy said he loved when he was a resident, fared worse. His highest rating was for Mortadella, and that was in the mid-range 7s. Coming soon, the Day’s one-bite pie assessment of the cheesy and yeasty in Davis Square? For those awaiting neck-craning sidewalk shenanigans, sorry.

Update on Sept. 8, 2023: Dragon Pizza has posted this response to the kerfuffle in its entrance.