Young and Hungry

Sniffing Out Yelp Reviews: Are They Trustworthy?

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The mozzarella in corrozza at Sergio's

I realize that this may come across as self-serving — as in, gosh, you should trust Y&H over those folks on various community sites — but after I read these reviews on Yelp about Sergio’s Ristorante Italiano, my interest in and suspicions about the place swelled to equal proportions. A few sample comments about the Silver Spring institution:

  • As a Silver Spring local, i feel like this place should be among the top places to eat in the DC area. Its true, the atmosphere is a bit lacking but the food really does make up for it. It is amazingly delicious and delectable and year after year, it does not disappoint. I look forward to visiting this great restaurant. Maybe because it is so hidden away, its still a true gem.

  • Sergios is so good I hesitate to review it on Yelp...The crowd is a good mixture of longterm devoted local fans and random  walk ins from the hotel. They never advertise and they never seem to make anyone's "Best Of" list.  I think it's because the regulars don't brag about it for fear of it being overrun.
  • While this place can only be described as traditional Italian food, it's too basic of a phrase to actually describe the flavors and meal itself.
  • It's a great, small family-owned business.  The owner is from Italy, goes back every year, and brings back new inspiration!  The menu changes constantly and the chef is great with improvising if there is something in particular you like...It's probably the best italian food I've had in that area.. and better than many of the overpriced italian restaurants in dc.

There literally is not a single bad review on Yelp about Sergio's, which averages 4.5 stars based on 12 separate critiques. To the average Web surfer looking for a good Italian restaurant in the D.C. area, Sergio's would land near the top of the list. Its rating is better than those for Ristorante Tosca, Siroc, Bibiana, 2Amys, and many others. It shares the same rating as Obelisk.

On Friday night, I invited a well-known Italian chef, with more than 20 years experience in the kitchen, to join me at Sergio's to assess the restaurant's authenticity — or at least its resemblance to regional Italian cooking. I granted the chef anonymity in return for his honest opinions. I'll call him Claudio for the sake of this story.

Not long after we were ushered to our seats in the subterranean restaurant inside the Hilton on Colesville Road, Claudio told me, in no uncertain terms, that  Sergio's didn't feel Italian to him. I asked him what he meant. Claudio started talking about the smells and the music and the general aura of small family-owned restaurants back in Italy; Sergio's is aiming for that kind of easy, carefree vibe, but falls short with its dated, nondescript decor and its cheerless staff. Claudio says he didn't see anyone smile during our visit.

Things didn't get much better when we started reviewing the plastic-covered menus. They were written in both Italian and English or, as Claudio noted, the dishes were Italian "by name but not by execution."

We started with the mozzarella in corrozza, which Claudio tells me is a street food readily available in Naples and Apulia. A round of fresh mozzarella is typically concealed between slices of a good, hearty Italian loaf. The concoction is then dipped in milk and eggs and fried. An anchovy fillet, or half of one, is usually sandwiched inside the bite. It should be crunchy, airy, buttery, and pungent all at once. The version at Sergio's was as soft as a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread, and it tasted mostly of fryer oil, although we both liked the accompanying creamy anchovy sauce for dipping.

For our mains, we were thwarted on our first requests. Sergio's had exhausted most of its housemade pastas, including the fettuccine and tonnarelli. We settled for Sergio's ragu served on penne (instead of the advertised fettuccine) as well as its manicotti ai spinaci, in which house-made manicotti is stuffed with spinach and ricotta.

The manicotti was so overcooked that it had the texture of cream cheese. Even more troubling to Claudio, the manicotti was topped with a thin layer of provolone cheese, which has all the authenticity of Olive Garden. The penne was likewise overcooked, although it was properly salted and flavorful; the ragu itself was sparsely applied and watery, as if the cooks hadn't drained the pasta completely. For Claudio, the dish's main fault was its inability to tie its flavors together into a coherent whole.

As we sat there at the table, picking at our plates, we started talking about Sergio's reputation among diners and why they're so passionate about it. Claudio thought Sergio's modest prices factored into diners' assessments. He also noted how most of the people who commented on Sergio's were local to Silver Spring and perhaps long-time fans. The implication was that they are perhaps biased to the place.

As we finally left Sergio's and headed to our respective cars, I had to ask Claudio one final question: Was there anything authentic about our meals? He turned to me and said, straight-up, "There was nothing Italian about our meals."

  • Lou

    Never trusted Yelp, however, I do like Sergio's. It is what it is!

  • Paul

    It is a valid point that price matters in ratings. If I get a good solid meal for under $20 that's going to get a noticeably higher rating than a place that may have served above average but not outstanding food and cost me $80.

  • Simon

    way to get ahead of this year-old story!

  • OTBerbur

    While I tend to regard Yelp reviews with skepticism, I also suspect Mr. Carman and Claudio dined at Sergio's on a bad night. I have eaten there perhaps three times in eight years, most recently about four weeks ago. While I agree that the basement dining area is dispiriting and the menus won't win any awards for originality, my meals there have been very good. The pasta dishes I had three weeks ago were first-rate, even if they tended to follow the adage that more butter and cream will always improve the taste of the dish. Comparable to Tosca? No. Authentic? Probably not. A good neighborhood value? Definitely.

  • anti-Yelp

    Often I senst the most frequent yelpers are cutesy, glib, and want their feet licked if they spend more than $12 on an entree. Cheese as bad as Olive Garden?

    "Yummers! Free breadsticks, rock on."

  • SG

    Honestly, this place is probably solidly Italian-American, which bears little resemblance to actual italian food. Same goes for the much ballyhooed stuff in NY/NJ. That stuff shares not much more similarity to Italian food in Italy as Chinese food here shares with Chinese food in China.

    Having said that, I haven't been there.

    I think what's more interesting are the places where you have a number of one or five star entries by people with no other reviews or a profile. Those are typically plants by people or friends associated with the place, or competitors who wish to bash it.

  • yelp=extortion

    Yelp is getting sued because of their extortionist ways. Pay for advertising on Yelp and good reviews magically appear. Don't pay for advertising- (they harrass businesses constantly- what is this the mob?) and your bad reviews magically float to the top. Don't trust Yelp!

  • http://chronicnegress.net winenegress

    I can confirm what yelp=extortion posts. There is a definite correlation between ad buys and positive comments. Also, I prefer to trust foodies like Y&H and few of the posters on chowhound. I might like Sergio's if I had a limited basis for comparison. I prefer reading the opinions of experienced eaters and cookers. The Yelp crowd is somewhat msyterious.

  • agentphunk

    I think Yelp is hit-or-miss, but just like reading Amazon reviews, sometimes you have to read between the lines. Case in point: I was in Winter Park, Florida (a nice/upper-class suburb of Orlando), and was reading Yelp reviews on my iPhone while walking down the main street. Restaurant #1 has a mix of both good and bad reviews, and the bad ones seemed more 'honest' for some reason. One of the bad reviews also said "Hostess looked trampy". I stop, peer in, Yup, the hostess looked trampy!

    I kept walking, found a place with a majority of good reviews and nothing in the (few) bad reviews that was a concern, and had a FANTASTIC meal.

    Again, sometimes the bad reviews are more important than the good ones. Just my $2. (inflation.)

  • Lan

    I liked yelp more than I liked biggestmenu and sporq. The new menupages still not as good as those top three I liked. Sporq had old menus not uptodate but the old menus still show what kind of food they may still sell but just those prices are no longer cheap. I like biggestmenu but yelp is more organized and only things I would complainted is yelp needed more menus photos which I can posted it up but I am lazy rather had someone else do it. It also needed to removed all the closed restaurants or put up more of the Closed Restaurant title up. Reading those out of business restaurants review of closed restaurants is upsetting even doing more search online said it was closed and yelp have not yelp posted those restaurants closed so I guess I had to write into the review liked others posting the restuarant telling those restaurants closed or renamed. Sometime yelp got two posting of the same restaurants reviewed and one is good and the other is bad.

  • Jimmy

    Yelp has been pressuring me on advertising with them. I refused and most of my 5 star reviews were put in the filtered folder!!! Never trust Yelp again! Bad business practice and shame on a public company like them.

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