Jack and Toby Litsky are vegans.
When they both turned 50 last year, they decided to battle their high cholesterol with a vegan diet. The Marlboro couple cut out meat, dairy and fat from their eating plans. In return, they both lost weight and cut their cholesterol numbers.
But their dietary choices have made dining out a challenge.
Jack Litsky said they’ve learned that not all pasta advertised as 100 percent whole grain actually is, so they’ve taken to bringing their own to Italian restaurants.
“We’ve gone to at least 50 or 60 restaurants in the past year-and-a-half and we’ve never had an issue,” he said. “They drop it in water and we can use red marinara tomato sauce and we ask for mushrooms and onions and red pepper if they have it.”
Litsky said if he and his wife have never visited a restaurant before, they call ahead to make sure the kitchen can accommodate them. And most often, they can, he said.
To make it easier for servers and chefs, the Litskys took to writing their dietary needs and cooking instructions on cards, which are handed in when they place an order.
“What they do typically is give us a discount,” he said. “If a pasta dish is $15, they will charge us $11 or $12 because we brought our own. We don’t ask for a discount but they usually give one.”
The first time they visited Monticello at Red Bank about a year ago, Litsky said he called ahead to explain their needs and make a reservation for six for a Saturday night.
“Everything was great that first time,” he said. “They charged us $12 each.”
Several months later, the Litskys returned on another Saturday night with four new co-diners and another box of pasta.
“We were charged that same amount,” he said. “Everything was great. We said we’ll come back.”
So they did, on Feb. 23, with four new friends and a $50 coupon from restaurants.com.
“Because (Monticello) had set a precedent twice before, we assumed everything would be status quo,” Litsky said.
But that’s not what happened.
Litsky said some in his party ordered chicken and fish. There was also a veal parmigiana. Litsky handed the waitress his box of pasta and explained what he and his wife wanted.
When the bill came, though, something wasn’t right, he thought.
“I saw the chicken dishes were like $23 or $24, the fish was like $23 and the parmigiana was about the same,” he said. “The pasta was $24 each.”
Litsky said he asked the waitress to double-check, thinking perhaps it was supposed to read $24 for both pasta dishes.
When the waitress returned, she said the price was correct. Litsky asked for a manager, to whom he repeated the story, but the manager said the price was correct.
The manager said it was the owner’s decision, Litsky said, so Litsky asked for the owner.
“The manager said she can’t come out because she’s also the cook,” Litsky said, telling the manager he’d be happy to wait.
About 10 minutes later, the owner, Caterin Giambalzo, came out of the kitchen, and Litsky said he explained his story again.
“She said, ‘You come here on a Saturday night and order a custom meal. I have to charge you extra,’â¯” Litsky said. “I said, ‘But you’ve already set the precedent where you charged me a lot less than that on several occasions,’ and she said that was the old manager’s decision and this was the new price.”
Litsky said he argued that a different price should have been disclosed, in which case he would have ordered a salad.
The owner insisted he pay the entire bill or she’d call the police, Litsky said.
Litsky said the pasta dishes on the menu ranged from $17 to $24, with the more expensive ones including fish or meats. He said he offered to compromise, paying the difference between what he was charged previously and what she wanted to charge.
That would be $18 each.
The owner said no, he said, and she returned to the kitchen. And the police were called.
Litsky said he explained the situation again to the police, who said that they’d have to arrest him for “theft of services” if he didn’t pay.
The officer said it’s not worth getting arrested over the few dollars, Litsky said. “I said it’s the principle of the matter that’s important to us.”
The officer explained because it’s a custom dish, the restaurant could set the price.
“I said, ‘Let me get this straight. If she had decided to charge me $124 for each I would have to pay that or get arrested?’â¯” Litsky said. “He said yes.”
Deciding that getting arrested wasn’t the wisest course of action, Litsky paid the entire bill with his American Express card and the party left.
A few days later, Litsky said, he called American Express to dispute $12 — the difference between the price Monticello wanted to charge him and the price he said he was charged during previous visits. The restaurant would have 30 days to answer the complaint.
SETTLING THE BILL
We reached out to the restaurant for its side of the story.
Monticello owner Giambalzo said she always tries to make the customer happy, and she disagreed with Litsky’s recounting of events.
“We don’t even have $12 pasta on the lunch menu,” she said.
She said Litsky must be mistaken about what he’d been charged in the past, and that the restaurant doesn’t usually customize orders, especially on busy weekends.
Litsky said she never made such an offer.
Giambalzo then said the police were called because Litsky refused to pay the entire bill, not just for the pasta dishes in question.
Plus, she said, she didn’t understand why Litsky disputed the entire bill with American Express if there were only two dishes in question. She planned to dispute the dispute, adding in a police report for good measure.
Litsky said there must be a mistake.
“I told American Express twice I’m only contesting $12, which is the difference between what I paid last time and what she wanted us to pay,” he said. “I was unequivocal and emphatic. It would be ridiculous to dispute the entire bill because four other people enjoyed their meals.”
He called American Express to check, and it had a dispute on record for $48 — the cost of the two pasta meals.
“I don’t even know how they got that amount. I told them to correct it to only $12 and they said they’re amending it,” he said. “Tell the owner I apologize because I’m sure this has been a big headache for her, thinking we wanted all the meals. That wasn’t the case and I want to pay my fair share.”
We shared Litsky’s message, and Giambalzo said she was appreciative.
“It thought he was complaining about the whole bill,” she said of the notification she received from American Express.
She said meeting in the middle with a refund of $12 was a fair resolution, and Litsky agreed.
“It’s a great solution,” he said.
“The best deal of the year,” Giambalzo said. “I see he’s reasonable and I don’t want a customer to be upset.”
Whether or not you agree with Litsky’s dietary choices, or with the stand taken by him or the restaurant owner, let this be a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what you may be charged. If you’re not sure, ask ahead of time. And remember it can be hard to negotiate in the heat of the moment, so step back, breathe, and remember that negotiating means everyone needs to give a little.