When Nino Barbalace came to the United States from Sicily, he brought his aunt Gianna with him.
Or at least her memory. The two spent countless hours together in the family restaurant on the sun-baked island, and Gianna taught her nephew the timeless traditions of Sicilian cooking. He eventually left to study architecture and settled outside Boston. But the allure of family cooking still pulled him, the restaurant said.
He opened a bakery and cafe in Dorchester, Mass., that immortalized her: Zia Gianna, or Aunt Gianna. But she was known in the family teeming with aunts as simply ‘Zia.’
“Zia had an innate ability to create community, comfort and love through food,” the restaurant says in a tribute page.
Barbalace wanted to convey that same welcoming spirit, he told Fox 25. He affixed a tiny pride flag to his restaurant’s window for the pride parade in June, and it has remained there since.
Then came the Yelp review.
“Well, that flag says all when you delve deeper and see the real customer base here, it’s clearly geared and catered ONLY to those who rally behind the rainbow flag.”
That alarmed Barbalace, who posted an image of the one-star review on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“All are welcome at Zia Gianna, even this gentleman. We’d love to show him some kindness from the LGBTQ community because love always wins,” Barbalace wrote in his post on Aug. 13.
The episode was personal, he told Fox 25.
“If you go to a place and … you’re not happy with the service, you’re not happy with the food — I mean, I understand that if I made a mistake because we make mistakes, too. This is a restaurant; this is not politics.”
Yelp removed the post after determining that it violated their policy because it included personal attacks, according to spokesman Jordan Bantista.
Barbalace told The Washington Post on Sunday afternoon, amid noise inside the bustling cafe, that he was busy preparing for an event and could not speak about the review.
The commenter appeared to be referencing Barbalace’s Italian and Sicilian heritage in his remarks. “[H]ere we have someone who is abandoning the sound family unit and structure. Absolutely disgusting and unacceptable,” the commenter said.
Customers rallied in response. Tiffany Andrade told Fox 25 that she dropped by the cafe on Friday to offer support.
“Luckily, we live in the land of the free, and people are entitled to their own opinion, but I do think it’s something to understand that we are an open community and there are people who come from all different countries and all different backgrounds and we should be welcoming of everyone,” Andrade said.
Loyal customers and first-time prospects offered similar support.
“We love your place, and love your love for everyone no matter what,” one customer said.
Another said: “Haven’t been in to your restaurant before, but now I’m putting it on my must-visit list. Love is love is love. Keep flying that flag!”
Barbalace told Fox that the flag is staying up. And in the spirit of Aunt Gianna, he says the Yelp reviewer can sit at his table and share a meal.
“I’m here to serve the food. If he is hungry, he is welcome to come here,” he said.