Crossword editor Mao Reynolds discusses his experience at the John Felice Rome Center’s dining hall Mensa.
It was a dark and not-very-stormy night when I got a caterpillar in my food.
I prodded at it with my fork, hesitant but determined to find out if it was really a bug or just a small sautéed chicory stem. I turned it over and sure enough, I saw the little legs and lumpy segments of a caterpillar.
This is just one of the many faults of the John Felice Rome Center’s dining hall, Mensa. We’re only a month into the semester, but I’ve already heard countless claims of food poisoning from friends and strangers alike.
The layout is the first red flag. The narrow space between the turnstile and food stations often gets jammed with students coming straight from class. The trays are weirdly bulky and triangular, making them a hassle to carry and squeeze onto tables. They’re also tricky to put away on the racks, which are stowed in yet another narrow space, again causing frequent clogs.
Timing is another issue. Mensa only opens at specific times for lunch and dinner, so you can’t just grab something if you have back-to-back classes, and it doesn’t serve breakfast at all.
Thankfully, we have Rinaldo’s Café, where students can spend dining dollars on pastries, sandwiches and coffee, on the same floor as Mensa — but it’s closed on the weekends. Even though there’s only around 200 students here, a little more leeway would make a big difference.
Getting into the actual food, I can’t even be sure it’s edible. Beyond my experience, multiple students have said they found hairs on their plates. Others have reported stomach pains and even food poisoning.
The salad bar rotates for reasons unknown to me. By dinner, the lettuce has wilted into a sad shade of pink and the tomatoes have dissolved into mush. There’s not many options unless you’re a big fan of pickled onions and watery kidney beans.
Let’s not even discuss the pizza.
Okay, okay. We’ll talk about it.
Apologies to my Editor-in-Chief Austin Hojdar, but de Nobili pizza is bad and Mensa is even worse. The cheese is burnt, the sauce is bland and the crust is more like focaccia. I don’t expect a lot from any dining hall, but this is Rome. Pizza of this quality in Italy might just be a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
To be clear, I don’t blame any of the dining hall workers. They already have a lot on their plate between cooking and serving meals to the onslaught of starving students. They also seem to be understaffed, which no doubt makes it even harder for them to please everyone.
But it’s not all bad at Mensa. There are some standout dishes, like the flaky potato-filled torta verde and the seasoned roasted zucchini. They also have a basket of amazingly crunchy apples and picture-perfect plums which are great as snacks or dessert.
There’s a cat that strolls around at dinner time, hoping for pets and spare bites of pasta. And students can put on whatever music they want through the communal bluetooth speaker, whether it’s Linkin Park, Led Zeppelin or Lauryn Hill.
The administration has at least seemed receptive to criticism. They responded quickly to my complaint about the caterpillar and even offered me a free breakfast at Rinaldo’s. They’ve also set up a survey for students to anonymously share their thoughts about campus dining services. I hope they follow through and make the right changes.
Feature image by Mao Reynolds / The Phoenix