Hate to disillusion you, but at some snazzy restaurants, despite the super-snazzy prices, the customer isn't always right. In fact, at one posh downtown place, a customer was refused service simply because he disagreed with the well-known owner about when he could eat a dish of rice.

The place: i Ricchi, recognized in many quarters as the best Italian restaurant in the city.

James T. Maloney, of Annandale, was the customer who got less-than-top-drawer treatment. With two friends, James was seated at i Ricchi on a recent Saturday night. The three ordered several appetizers, one entree apiece and a portion of risotto to be served with their main dishes.

Risotto is nothing fancy. It's rice in broth, with a layer of grated cheese on top. It's the sort of side dish your mother always bugged you to finish -- and always served alongside a meat dish. Most Washingtonians -- including the one typing this -- would think risotto lacks the star quality to be served by itself.

But i Ricchi refused to serve James and his two friends risotto with their entrees. They said risotto is strictly an appetizer in Italy, and is only served that way at i Ricchi. The staff wouldn't serve the dish at any other point in the meal.

James appealed to the maitre d', who conferred with Francesco Ricchi, the owner. Upshot: The restaurant agreed to do it, but just this once.

End of fracas? Not by a long shot. A few minutes later, Francesco Ricchi appeared at James Maloney's table. He told the diners that risotto simply isn't eaten with dinner in Italy.

James replied that they were on 19th Street NW in Washington, D.C., not in Italy. Besides, James added, if the three diners were paying -- and they had every intention of doing so -- they had the right to eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it.

According to James, Francesco Ricchi replied by saying: "Well, I refuse to serve you. I don't need your money that bad." James replied that legally, the restaurant was obliged to serve the party. Francesco Ricchi angrily refused.

James called the police. Two officers responded. They said they could not force the restaurant to provide service to anyone.

Francesco Ricchi's side of the story:

"What the law is I don't exactly know. But we're here to serve our customers and we're trying to build up a certain reputation. I don't want to be an instructor, but the gentleman asked for risotto as a side dish to meat, and in Italy it's not done . . . .

"They were very arrogant as to what is done in Italy. I thought they weren't going to enjoy their dinner if they act like that, and at that point I thought the only solution was not to serve them."

James and his friends are still having trouble believing that Francesco Ricchi had the right to do what he did. "Can Mr. Ricchi refuse to serve us just because he doesn't want to?" James asks. He stresses that he and his friends were well dressed and never raised their voices at any time during the episode.

Sorry, James and company, but Francesco Ricchi was indeed within his rights. According to Richard Johnson, a staff attorney for the National Restaurant Association, a restaurateur can refuse service to anyone as long as the refusal isn't based on race, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

Yet this episode shouldn't be a question of law alone. Customers don't want lessons. They want to have a nice time. I Ricchi gave them the first and not the second. Clearly, James and friends deserved better, even if they may have seemed arrogant.

The other diners deserved better too. Could they have enjoyed seeing two police officers march into a fancy restaurant to settle a dispute over a bowl of rice? The thought is absurd. The reality must have been even more so.

Francesco Ricchi certainly has the right to run his restaurant in an authentically Italian way. But what happens the next time I go there and the waiter asks if I want grated cheese on my pasta? Am I going to be booted out if I say no?

Restaurants do best when they bend. At i Ricchi, they obviously need to learn how.

I've checked the obvious places, but I've come up dry. Maybe someone in reader-land can help.

Edward F. Tralka, of Bethesda, wonders if there's a cribbage club in the Washington area. He learned to play "many moons ago" while serving in the Navy. A computer version of cribbage is on the market, and Edward owns a set. But it's "not the same as playing with real people," he observes.

Any cribbageurs out there who are looking for a fellow fan? Let me know at 202-334-7276, and I'll spread the word -- by phone to Edward, by newspaper to the rest of the world.

Carl Heidecke, of College Park, says he saw it in the classifieds of a Florida paper: