The neighborhood pizzeria on Riverside Drive, Little Italy Pizzeria, failed its health inspection Aug. 31, and the owner is making some big claims about why his restaurant failed.
Owner Ben Cortese has taken to social media, stating that his restaurant was targeted.
“I have been in this business all my life. … My family owns all the Little Italy's from Athens to here,” he said. “I felt we were targeted, especially this time, due to some politics and racism around the community and the country right now. I have never in my life experienced anything like this in my career.”
The pizzeria was given a score of 49, failing the inspection with 13 violations.
Cortese said he served lunch to a group coming from the Aug. 19 protest to remove the Confederate monument in Gainesville’s downtown square, which has caused a backlash.
“I had people messaging me about letting ‘those people’ in our restaurant. Some people think I am for this party or that. … I am for Little Italy, for serving the people of Gainesville,” Cortese said. “I was caught in the middle of something I don’t want to be a part of.”
Three weeks later a health inspector from the Georgia Department of Public Health and two trainees reviewed the restaurant.
The health inspector’s goal is to ensure food served is safe to eat; inspectors work with owners and managers to “explain out-of-compliance issues” and how to correct them, said Dave Palmer, District 2 Public Health public information officer and risk communicator
“Our goal is to make sure restaurants are serving safe food, as the restaurant’s goal is to serve food to their customers,” Palmer said. “We don’t want to hinder that process, and (we) want them to be in compliance with all the codes.”
Food service inspections are objective evaluations of observed actions during restaurant operations, Palmer said.
“The form that is used is the same for all counties in Georgia. Our environmental health inspectors all receive training on how to use the form so that the inspection criteria are applied consistently,” Palmer said.
Cortese said he is receiving threats on social media and by phone that “people would never come eat here again if I allowed the people that wanted the statue taken down to come eat at my restaurant.”
“I am not a political person — I work a lot and I have a family — I didn’t even know there was a statue trying to be taken down in the square,” he said. “I allowed them to come eat in here because I allow anybody to come eat in my restaurant that likes my food and good people of any race, religion or political view.”
Though a follow-up inspection of Little Italy Pizzeria has not been set by the Georgia Department of Public Health, Palmer said the department has been in contact with the owner.
“When this occurs, we do re-inspect the facility within a few days to make sure identified issues have been corrected or to provide further guidance,” Palmer said. “Generally, follow-up inspections show that the owner/manager has corrected the issues and results in a passing score.”
The restaurant had never failed an inspection by the Georgia Department of Public Health since its opening in the city 15 years ago.
In November 2016, Little Italy received a score of 88 and in April 2016, it was given a score of 92.
“It is not uncommon to find more violations even after good past inspections,” Palmer said. “For Little Italy, there were several violations that resulted in the low score. If you look at their inspection history, you will find that they have had several documented issues at every inspection. Many of these are repeat issues such as handwashing and surface cleaning.”
Cortese said the inspection lasted for five hours. The time noted on the report is 11 a.m. to 12:40 p.m.
“They log when they start and complete the inspection. It takes a while to inspect the restaurant,” Palmer said. “If the manager, owner or the inspector has questions, it may last longer than the actual inspection.”
Among the violations, Little Italy had marks off for Cortese not being able to correctly answer questions pertaining to the operations performed, proper cooling parameters, the reason raw animal foods need to be separated by minimum internal cook temperatures and symptoms associated with the diseases transmissible through food.
“She asked me about disease control. … I answered them; I sat on my patio while it was storming with her two trainees and answered all her questions,” he said.
The restaurant also received a poor score due to the dish machine not dispensing sanitizers while in use and chicken not being cooked to a minimum temperature of 165 F.
“Here at Little Italy we have a dishwasher only for beer pitchers and beer glasses; everything else is paper plates and Styrofoam cups. There was a man certified working on our dishwasher that day,” he said. “We have proof of the work order that he was working on it. …(The inspector) thought we were using it.”
Cortese said the chicken was still on the grill when they checked the temperature.
“My cook that has been trained properly was cooking chicken on our flattop in the back. The trainee went up to my cook and said, ‘Hey, can I temperature that chicken?’ My cook said yes, but that it wasn’t done, it was still on the grill and he was still cooking it. They took points off for that,” he said. “The chicken never made it to the front of my restaurant and never came near a plate.”
Cortese said he agrees that they were not washing their hands every time they changed gloves, a violation also noted.
“I have nothing to lie about. … We were very busy. I took my gloves off and put new ones on without washing my hands a few time, but that is not a 49,” he said. “I felt we were targeted and made an example. Anyone can come in my kitchen in my presence and you will not see anything of that nature in my restaurant. This is my life and I would never jeopardize it."
Cortese said his company “is not going anywhere” and that Little Italy Pizzeria “deserves a new health inspector” and a “fair health inspection.”
“We have always passed in the high 80s, low 90s. We are not perfect, we are a little mom and pop place, but we are pretty good. This restaurant is my life,” Cortese said.