In the 32 years our waitress has worked at Barcelona's Restaurant, she has served enough canned vegetables to fill an entire supermarket -- maybe two.
Fish and other seafood are frozen, and the small salad that comes with entrees has iceberg lettuce and a couple of slices of tasteless tomato straight from the fridge.
She brings oil and vinegar, and a basket of spongy bread, as afterthoughts. What am I doing here?
A famously frugal friend said he read a favorable appraisal of the place in The Record, and wanted to try it.
I looked at the extensive, a la carte menu online, saw that most entrees are well under $10, and figured there was no way we would get in on a Saturday night.
But there were plenty of empty tables in the dated interior of this 78-year-old Garfield restaurant, which allegedly serves Italian-American food. It's not clear if the waitress was born before the restaurant opened or the other way around.
The reviewer said the restaurant serves big portions of "traditional southern Italian cooking" at startlingly low prices, adding the food was "nicely done," but after I had dinner there Friday night, those statements don't ring true.
Then, I remembered the reviewer was a man of gargantuan proportions who never met a morsel of food he didn't like.
The food served at Barcelona's is a cruel joke on southern Italian cooking -- which prizes fresh seafood and vegetables -- and doesn't even come close to the Italian-American dishes served at so many other places in North Jersey.
I asked the waitress about the filet of sole "with potato and string beans" for $8.75.
"It's frozen and deep fried," she said. "I'm not going to lie." She also turned thumbs down on the frozen scallops, and told me to have the "shrimp scampi" for $8.50.
The string beans are from a can, she said, and other veggies, available for $1 more, are canned peas with sliced carrots. Broccoli rabe, escarole sauteed with oil and garlic? Forgetaboutit.
I ordered the "scampi," which bear no resemblance to real scampi -- Dublin Bay prawns with narrow bodies and small pincer claws similar to lobster, like the ones I had in Venice last September.
My friend chose a rib steak and pasta for $8.50, and both of us asked for a cup of escarole-and-bean soup from the list of specials ($3.25).
I got eight small, soggy shrimp swimming in a puddle of sauce, and two plates of lifeless vegetables. The soup, which came in a small crock, was the best thing we had.
We turned down an offer of dessert.
This is cheap?
And it turned out not to be cheap. I gave my friend $19 for my lousy shrimp, extra veggies, soup and club soda, plus tip and tax. I can think of a lot of Italian-American restaurants where the same amount would have bought me a really decent meal.
The restaurant is in a drab, working-class residential neighborhood, and it's facade is not even real stone. Awaiting me inside was one of the worst meals I have ever had.
There's an American flag painted on the wall out front and many patriotic signs inside and out -- all suggesting the food is not that far above Army chow.
Barcelona's Restaurant, 38 Harrison Ave., Garfield;
973-778-4930. Cash only, street parking.
Web site: Certainly not worth the detour