MONTREAL - Mamma Mia! The word “pasta” is a little too Italian for Quebec’s language cops.
They’d prefer something more in the language of Moliere than Michaelangelo when it comes to menus, even in Italian restaurants.
“Pasta” wasn’t the only word that left a sour taste when they recently chewed over the menu at Buonanotte, a trendy Italian restaurant in Montreal. There were several other words that didn’t have enough of a French flavour for the Office Quebecois de la language francaise.
For example, the agency says “bottiglia,” which is Italian for bottle, should be “bouteille” on the wine list. Using “calamari” instead of the French word for squid is also a little fishy.
The restaurant’s owner couldn’t believe it when he got a letter from the agency pointing out the transgressions.
“We were taken aback by it,” said Buonanotte owner Massimo Lecas on Wednesday.
Buononotte is a high-profile Montreal eatery that has catered to a host of sports and entertainment stars including Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Celine Dion, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Brian Mulroney have also dined there but it wasn’t immediately clear if Premier Pauline Marois has ever been a customer. It also has a restaurant in Toronto under the same name.
Controversy was the flavour of the day Wednesday as people stewed on social media over the intervention from the Office inspectors, who were dubbed “tongue troopers” back in the darker days of Quebec’s language battles.
At least two Twitter trends, including one called “pastagate” were created where people left biting comments.
“There’s currently some beef between me and the PQ,” tweeted Quebec Pasta.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, the provincial government reiterated that the language agency would review the whole situation.
It conceded that despite finding non-French words on the restaurant menu, the officials involved were "overzealous."
The statement said the review would take into account exceptions to the language law relating to foreign food.
Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for the language law, also issued a late-evening statement that she was satisfied with that approach.
"In all matters surrounding language, judgment and moderation must be what guides us," she said. "The corrective measures taken today by the Office have confirmed to me that I am right to trust the expertise and quality of their work."
It was a different tone than that expressed on Twitter by the Parti Quebecois earlier in the day when they tweeted that De Courcy was "amazed" by the situation.
De Courcy herself also assured reporters in Quebec City at that time that “I’m going to have someone look into this to see what happened."
She wasn't the only PQ minister who was wondering what was going on.
Jean-Francois Lisee, the PQ minister responsible for Montreal who has been tasked with building bridges to the anglophone community, said with a chuckle: “I think it’s overdone. I’ll have a chat with Mme De Courcy about that.”
The Office recently received a six per cent budget increase for this year, following a flareup in political attention paid to language. The PQ drove much of that discussion while in opposition, and has tabled a new language law now that it's in power although the legislation is milder than expected.
The Office budget now stands at $24.7 million.
Martin Bergeron, a spokesman with the Office, said in an interview that he was surprised by the “intensity” of the online outrage about the Buononotte situation.
“But I can understand that from the social media point of view, the word that got out is that the Office went out for only one word,” he said.
“It would be nonsense and that’s how it’s looked at.”
Bergeron said the agency challenged the use of more than the word “pasta” and that it will work with the owner of the restaurant to resolve the matter.
Lecas said his restaurant hasn’t had a language complaint in the 22 years it’s been open and he’s handling the controversy with a sense of humour.
“We’ve all had bigger battles,” he said. “It’s not something that I know is a life or death situation. It’s something that we’ll handle.”
Lecas did lament that the brouhaha seemed to be reflective of current language tensions in the province that followed vows by the PQ to toughen laws.
Ironically, the saga started the day after the Sept. 4 election when the PQ won a minority government.
Lecas said the language agency asked for a copy of his menu because it had received a complaint from a customer and he sent them one.
“I was like, ’No problem’,” he said in recalling the request.
“My menu is fully French. It’s not even bilingual. I gave them everything.”
On Tuesday, he got their reply. There were several Italian words they were hungry to translate to French on the menu to make it comply to the requirements of the Quebec Charter of the French Language, which says French must be predominant.
Bergeron insisted that while the word “pasta” has been painted as the culprit in social media, the agency would not go after a business for a single word.
“We would not act on a complaint like that,” he said.
Bergeron said the law is flexible when it comes to foreign words with no French-language equivalent.
“There are exceptions in the law when we are talking about exotic dishes or specialty names,” Bergeron said. “If there is no infraction because there is an exception in the law, then we will drop the matter.”
He said the next step is to talk to the business owner and see what can be done to resolve the situation.
Bergeron said the agency was far from talking about penalties because most of the time an accommodation is reached. Fines, however, can range between $1,500 and $20,000.
Buonanotte wasn’t the only eatery to get the Office’s attention recently.
CTV Montreal reported that the Brit and Chips restaurant was told to change its menu listings in English, including switching the name of its trademark dish to “poisson frit et frites.”
The owner told CTV that he understood the reason for the language laws, and would comply with them, but he could not change a sign announcing the shop's specialty because he said it would kill his business.