The Maximo Italian Bistrot is in the London district of Kennington—no, not Kensington—within walking distance of the Imperial War Museum, Kennington Park, and the blue-plaqued brick house where Charlie Chaplin lived in the late 1800s. On TripAdvisor, it brags about its location near the Kennington tube station, says that its two dining areas will provide “discretion and comfort,” and swears that even though its customers may enter as guests, they’ll “leave as friends.”
Maximo has received TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence three times, so that whole “they’ll leave as friends” thing might be true for a lot of people, but not everyone—not unless owner Massimo Donato tells his friends that they’d be better off eating shit.
In October, a man whose username is Zwelitheni M gave the bistrot a one-out-of-five rating, and shared his underwhelming experience in a review that he titled “The service in this place is second only to cow dung.”
“Ordered the crab ravioli in a cream salmon sauce,” he wrote. “Halfway through the meal, I felt like the dish needed a little something. So I asked the waiter for some Parmesan cheese and he sort of gave me a bewildered look […] He literally refused to give me the Parmesan, stating you do not put Parmesan on any seafood because it would take away the flavor. When I explained that I wanted it because I liked my cream dishes cheesy, he repeated himself and walked away.”
Zwelitheni finished his meal and went back to his hotel, and he wasn’t about to let this shit drop. He called the restaurant and told whoever answered the phone that “his job was to cater to the paying customers.” The staffer again insisted that he would never give anyone cheese to sprinkle on their seafood, so Zwelitheni shrugged and hung up.
Donato discovered this review last month, and in a now-deleted response, he accused Zwelitheni of making an “obscene request” at his restaurant. “There are a few rules on the authentic Cucina Italiana you probably aren’t aware,” he wrote. “NEVER ask for pineapple on pizza. NEVER put cream on your Carbonara. NEVER ask for any Alfredo pasta (who is Alfredo anyway?). NEVER put chicken on arrabbiata, and last but not least, NEVER NEVER EVER ASK FOR CHEESE ON A FISH DISH.”
“Try Parmesan on cow dung,” he concluded. “It should taste fine for you.” When someone else stood up for Zwelitheni on Twitter, Maximo’s responded that cheese on seafood pasta was a slippery slope toward other flavor abominations. “[I]f we agree what's next?” they wrote. “Banana chicken carbonara? Did you ask for ketchup on your favourite sushi? Don't think so!”
No one is quite sure where Italy’s unofficial ban on pairing cheese and seafood comes from, but everyone seems to agree that Italian chefs are serious about it. Smithsonian.com has suggested that it’s forbidden for the reason that Donato gave: because cheese can overpower the delicate flavors of most fresh seafood. They also guess that it could be because, historically speaking, the regions of Italy that were known for their cheeses were landlocked, so they could’ve developed a lot of recipes without even thinking about adding seafood to the ingredients list.
And, in a piece for The Kitchn, chef and cheesemonger Nora Singley wondered if there could be a Catholic component as well. “For many centuries, meat and dairy consumption were forbidden for religious reasons on every Friday,” she wrote. “On that day, fish became the logical replacement for meat, and since cheese was also restricted, the two foods evolved distinctly from one another. A possible explanation.”
Regardless, Donato isn’t backing down, calling his response to Zwelitheni part of his “war against foolness [sic].” The controversy hasn’t softened his attitude either: on Sunday, when a different customer gave the Bistrot a one-star review, he made a different, non-shit related suggestion. “A cat is highly recommended to fill such a [sic] empty hole you have in your life,” he wrote.
So, yeah, about that “they leave as friends” thing…