Sa Za – Serious Italian Food

Until relatively recently, the downtown lunch meant gritting your teeth and going to Flames or Cuco’s Express (which has recently been rehabilitated in our eyes on account of their willingness to sub in a great guacamole taco in the $5.49 taco/enchilada lunch plate). Sure, there are a few other options (the Farmers Market on McDonough is pretty decent some days and Daisy’s isn’t too far away). But mostly, downtown is a tough place to find food worth buying, especially if you aren’t thinking steam table veggies in the meat-and-three format.

Into that picture waltzes (or should we say, tarantellas) the hot new place that everyone is talking about: Sa Za. The place is always crowded. Everyone asks if you have eaten there yet. The chef is on the cover of  the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of Montgomery RSVP magazine (expect a free magazine review soon). So hip!

And about that chef: Joe Dimaggio, Jr. People love talking about that guy. He wears a Yankees hat. He always has on a t-shirt that reveals his arm tats. On the back of the t-shirts worn by the staff of the restaurant, most people have ones that say “server” or “staff,” but his says “sinner.” Edgy! Is he really the son of the legendary Yankee baseball player? No. That guy died in 1999 and never had children of his own (but did have two step kids). So the Yankee hat and the picture of the Yankee Clipper hanging in the restaurant? Well, I guess you just have to do that when that’s your name. Better than being “that guy who still wears his cap backwards.” No matter the chef’s relationship to the “other” DiMaggio, he’s clearly a serious cook with a good idea for a franchise, and is working his butt off to make sure it works (we’d suggest, as a start, not listing “New York, Tokyo, London” down at the bottom of their webpage since they don’t have Sa Za in any of those cities).

We hope it does. We like the Alley development, even though we don’t go there that often. We love the idea of Montgomery having things downtown that people could frequent, and hope that all this will spin off into mixed-use housing and the other stuff that would enliven downtown. We also think it’s pretty cool to have this guy starting his new franchise concept right here in Capital City, even though we’re not so big on restaurant franchises in general. DiMaggio may be on to something for real here – the “fast casual” Italian niche is bloated with entries like the Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, and Carrabas – all strip mall suburban stand-alones that don’t so much develop cities as destroy them. I can imagine a franchise like Sa Za investing in places like Montgomery that badly need the opposite of the Olive Garden.

To be clear: Sa Za is not the opposite of the Olive Garden. But it’s at least approaching an obtuse angle from that perennial dinner-with-older-relatives destination. They rehabbed an old building rather than buy one of those awful restaurant pads. Their menu isn’t glutted with a lot of stuff served “Alfredo,” and the ingredients they are using are clearly very high quality. The decor is urban loft-y without being gross, and city chic without trying too hard. There’s some stuff that needs improving – for example, a glass of wine should come in something bigger than a glorified shot glass – but in general it’s got all the ingredients. And if the crappy Wintzell’s across the street (not to be confused with the good Wintzell’s in Mobile) is packing people in, Sa Za should be fending off lines out the door.

I had been once before for a quick lunch. The place was packed, so I sat at the bar with a friend and we split a pizza. It was unimpressive looking, but quite tasty. A simple tomato and basil and cheese pizza is tough to mess up, but the crust was great and the atmosphere was festive and warm. Someone painted a picture near us while we ate and we got out of there with a cheap but largely unremarkable lunch. Not really worth reviewing other than for some superficial comments about the style of the place.

But we went back with 5 folks for a mid-day lunch recently, and my overwhelming feeling for Sa Za as we left was pity. It was a shame that, on the day we went in to eat, we got to experience a pretty epic server fail. Look, the place is nice. But ultimately, they hired this person and this was the meal we went in to eat. And thus, the review that follows.

Due to the high volume of folks, we went in at 12:10 to get on the list for 12:30. Five people. Two of us were seated just before 12:30 and our party arrived pretty quickly thereafter.

The menu is an enormous laminated sheet, with decent (if pricey) variety of offerings. Garlic sticks were nearly ordered (three or four bucks for a dozen), but most of the apps were in the $8 to $12 zone, putting them out of range for a simple lunch trip.

Person One ordered an appetizer of flattened chicken over a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and a piece of pizza. The salad didn’t look that good, but then again, we don’t eat chicken. Maybe some people are really into hammered flat flesh discs. Person Two, annoyed that there was no lasagna on the menu, ordered a pizza. The menu boasts about how many pizza toppings the place has. There’s a long list and then the menu says, “and 30 more toppings not listed here!” He ordered pepperoni and green olives. Person Three has puttanesca, the pasta of the bordellos. Person Four orders baked rigatoni. Person Five has a spicy shrimp marinara.

Keep in mind that this is lunch. The plan was to eat from 12:30 till 1:30 or so. The people we were with work for a pretty demanding place that isn’t that cool with unexplained extended lunch hours. So we were relaxed but — like most lunch diners — on a clock.

Well, the hammered chicken disc salad comes and we wait. And we wait. And we talk some more. And we wait. As we start to check the time, the server comes over and informs us that they don’t have green olives. Unclear whether they aren’t on the menu or they just happen to be out. But the point is clear: They just now realize that there are no green olives because they have just now started to bake the pizza. When faced with our incredulous dismay, the server says with a shrug, “Oh, my bad. I just assumed that I’d put in the order for the main courses after the appetizer. I guess I should have asked.”

Um. Yes. Was she waiting for One person to consume the appetizer before putting in the food order? Waiting for us to somehow signal her that we were ready for them to start cooking our food?

Needless to say, the food finally arrived and was tasty. All of it was tasty. The puttanesca was especially delicious – it’s an under-ordered delicacy that’s easy to make and fresh and good. But we were pissed. Our friends were going to be late. They gobbled food like crazy. Then, to make matters worse, the server must have figured that she was screwed on getting a tip anyway, so she just ignored us for a good while before bringing us our bill. An offer to give us a discount? An offer of free dessert? Nope. Not even one of those heartfelt apologies that reminds you that you too once did some time in a restaurant serving job and the industry can be tough — full of bad tipping, thankless customers with messy children and inflated senses of entitlement. Nope. We left at 2:00.

The next day, one of us ate at Old Enzor Lane in nearby Troy. It’s a ladies-that-lunch type restaurant in a lovely old house that’s only open a few days a week. Her party was one of just a few for lunch. The service was in no particular hurry, and their lunch took half an hour longer than it probably should have. Without a need for any discussion about this, the server brought free dessert for the table (and the grilled pound cake with strawberry cream filling should immediately be declared a national treasure). This is the way to do it.

If Sa Za wants to franchise out, they should take a page from Old Enzor Lane. Ultimately, we will eat there again, if only because we want to support urban redevelopment and The Alley. And on its worst day, Sa Za has more to offer than Dreamland (the only other place to get food in the Legendary Redevelopment Project That’s Going To Save Downtown). But it’s a bit of a bummer to go in to review a place and end up leaving with a batch of frustrated and harried folks, even if the food was quite tasty.

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21 responses to “Sa Za – Serious Italian Food

  1. you know that guy made his name up, he just changed his name to joe dimaggio jr. he thinks it will put his restaurants in new york, tokyo, etc.

    thats what i heard

  2. you think his dad is joe dimaggio?

    he made a fake name to match his (new?) pizza dough slingin persona. his restaurant is all cool beans culture swag meeting jersey shore guido fat tony tatted up, and then his web site says he studied with the finest italian chefs of japan, the middle east, and tuscany. what kind of pizza place is this shit?

    like the rest of the alley, he is trying too hard.”
    i dont know i hate that shit, ive never met him but hes got a funny website. hes got one pretentious ass pizza place.

    • His dad may be named Joe DiMaggio, even if that person is not the Yankee Clipper.

      Be nice if you’d keep the ethnic slurs to a minimum, “eggbone.”

    • Egg Bone, You got it right. Everyone has figured out his name is Chef Joke DiMaggio Fooled Ya. Trust me Kate is trying to defend someone shes knows nothing about, because shes never been to any top restaurant in the country. Hes in the south cause he couldnt cut it in NY. That restaurant he came from closed in White Plains, just like the original Za Za in Estero, FL closed just like some Art Gallery Restaurant in Toronto. All that stuff about studying from the finest chefs around the globe on that self promoting website Sa Za Website is just he said she said. Think about it, if a person did all that and has those credentials, wouldnt he be out signing cookbooks, judging culinary competitions, on Top Chef as a judge or Top Chef Masters with all the chefs that actually cooked in restaurants? No, hes in Montgomery with restaurant competition that serve buffet and BBQ and open cans of creamed corn or c pre cooked collard greens.

  3. So, they had olives for the puttanesca but not for the pizza?

  4. Black for puttanesca, no green for the pizza. Go figure.

  5. I love the place, and so do a lot of people. Not sure what the fuss is all about. Who cares…we have been 8 times at least and always received great service and fantastic food.

    • Good point. Who cares about a bad service experience leading to being late for work? Who cares? Because sometimes that doesn’t happen. What’s all the fuss about you fussing fussers? Writing your reviews about your experiences. Just listen to Helen. She determines what merits fuss and what doesn’t.

      • Riverwalk Foodie

        Youre a joke, just like Helen and that clown Joe DiMaiggio Jr who is scam artist fraud. Master my a$$, no one has ever heard of this fake, and where is he now? Gone! and the food and restaurant blows…..

  6. I went to saza and waited almost 2 hours for a table. Not happy…however, once we sat and ate, it was a true pleasant experience and my hunger pains and slight upset attitude went to being elated. The restaurant is beautiful inside and we could have been in any top city USA, kudo’s for Montgomery to have a place like this

    • So if this restaurant could have been in any top city in the US, why isnt it? Its in Montgomery! And a failing one in Newnan, Ga. This just in, the food in restaurant in Montgomery isnt that good! Food is inconsistent, pizza dough is bought in, as well as the meatballs and half the desserts and the open kitchen displays a filthy kitchen! Yeah you waited 2 hrs when the place still meant something, try waiting now..

  7. Joe is distant cousin to the Yankee Clipper. He has never pretended to be his son.

  8. You know, the place got off to a great start, food, service and everyone working hard. Montgomery needed this. Its still ok, but very inconsistent, food is so blah now. The seasons change, but the menu doesnt. Its too heavy for all year round. Joe says he opened restaurants around the world. Yet this is still the same menu from day 1. Even Montgomery gets bored with the same ole, and Im afraid Sa Za is becoming that. Joe is a celebrity huh, I ve never seen him on TV or on Top Chef. Maybe he was at a yankee game here and there…

  9. This place is boring. Food, 80’s rock star decor, just boring.

  10. This is the worst restaurant I have ever eaten in. This must be the type of place you go not to enjoy pricey food but to be seen. They charge you for items you did not even order and when you question the bill not only does the wait staff get rude but the manager was even ruder. When the manager came out for us to speak to she talked to several members of our group with the rudest most prejudicial tone and remarks. If you want an enjoyable Italian meal with good service, don’t patronize this place.

  11. Riverwalk Foodie

    Not good, ON ANY LEVEL. Went with a group of friends last Thursday. It was pretty busy but the food took WAY TOO LONG.. We shared some garlic sticks, soft polenta and a chopped caesar to start. A little heavy on the garlic, but the sticks tasted pretty good. A slight freezer taste as well.. The polenta was yummy, nice and soft with a rich brown gravy on top. The salad was awful. Why would you chop a caesar to bits? You cant even get the crisp feeling of the Romaine lettuce.. weird.. On to entrees. Chopped lobster absolutely terrible. Watered down, dark frozen spinach (what chef would use frozen spinach) and bland frozen seafood. Blah My friend Jillian enjoyed the salmon, but said its not Italian, its the OLD Salmon Dijonaise, as she said it was one of the first cookbooks recipes she ever made at home as a young lady. Spaghettini and meatballs were good the 2nd time around, as we sent them back because the meatballs were cold and the Chicken Scarprielo was filled with oily vegetables, un evenly cooked sausage and an over seasoned burnt frenched chicken breast. Our server could tell we werent happy, and delivered us the Bolognese on the house. IT WAS HUGE AND YUMMY, wish we ordered that 1st because we had our minds made up on Sa Za by then. As I went to wash my hands I took a look into the kitchen, and that was a mistake on my part and Sa Za for having an open kitchen. The stoves are black and filthy with carbon build up, plastic bags and pieces of pasta on the floor, NO ONE WEARING GLOVES! We paid the tab, with a minimal tip and cut our losses (Sa Za never again).

  12. Very surprised that a restaurant that seemed to be the perfect Chess move faltered. I selected the Veal Parmesan(sp)…It looked great, but after taking a few bites I observed the veal to be burnt around the edges. Also, I saw the pre-made pizza skins(dough). Very disappointing, as I worked in an Italian Restaurant as a young man in Cleveland…what a difference.

    • Hey Yo Woa!! I’m Greaseball Joe with the Frozen Dough!!!
      Seriously, the fact that Montgomery swallowed this clown’s B.S. would be hilarious if it wasn’t indicative of which way downtown’s going. Thugs, frauds, and lowlifes. Very sad. I’m not surprised his joint in Newnan failed- google him. Every place he brags about has failed.

      • Newport Smoke

        I told people from the moment this FRAUD CAME TO TOWN. Hes a fake. He cant cook. Stole all his recipes and the all the food aint from scratch. He just failed again in Newnan.. Idiot…. He nowhere to be found now Ironically… said scumbag….

  13. Im very pleased that Sa Za Montgomery is still thriving. The Downtown needed this location. Its not the best Italian nor is it the worst. The greatest thing that happened was the Creator/Liar/Fraud hiring the Chopped Chef to make the place work. While neither are in sight anymore The Food Network Star is still spoken about with high regard. Everyone can understand why he would leave to a big metropolitan city. The negative is the menu hasn’t changed! He or someone needs to step in and make that happen. If that involves that Yankee Fake, then never mind, we ll just keep the peace in the gump without him. He s already sank the Newnan location with his BS.

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