The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Restaurant Review: Olive Garden (Any Olive Garden)

Olive Garden: Good Italian Dining For the Uninformed and Desperate

Let's start with the upfront admission that I really kind of like Olive Garden. When there isn't a real Italian restaurant around within twenty miles.

Olive Garden is to Italian cuisine what McDonald's is to hamburgers: it's a chain restaurant. Olive Garden is currently owned by Darden Restaurants, Inc. out of Orlando, FL, which, according to their website, is the world’s largest company-owned and operated restaurant company with almost $6.7 billion in annual sales. The company employs approximately 180,000 employees. Through subsidiaries, Darden owns and operates more than 1,700 restaurants including Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

Being a link in a chain is a good thing and it's a bad thing. The good part is that no matter whether you're in Altoona or Zanesville, the food at Olive Garden is going to taste the same. The bad thing is that whether you're in Altoona or Zanesville, the food at Olive Garden is going to taste the same. Uniformity - that's what chain restaurants are all about.

People don't go to McDonald's because McDonald's has the best hamburgers in the world. Ray Kroc figured that out fifty years ago. People go to McDonald's because the food they get there today tastes like the food they got there yesterday - or last week, or last month. And the McDonald's on the other side of town or on the other side of the planet is just like the one right around the corner from home. Same thing with Olive Garden.

Olive Garden claims that their "culinary inspiration" comes from the "Culinary Institute of Tuscany, located in the heart of Tuscany ... where Olive Garden's chefs learn the secrets of great Italian cooking ... to create authentic Italian dishes that you'll enjoy sharing with your family and friends." Yeah, okay, whatever. McDonald’s also touts its “Hamburger University.” Both are real places, but let’s not get too excited about the level of culinary excellence they produce. What the chefs/cooks learn to prepare in Tuscany, using fresh, authentic Italian ingredients and techniques, and what they actually turn out in their American kitchens using cheap, overprocessed American ingredients are two very different things. If Chef Paolo Lafata, the guy in charge at the Culinary Institute, were to come to my local Olive Garden with a truckload of fresh ingredients from Italy and prepare all the dishes on the menu the way he does in his Italian kitchen, I'd be the first customer in line everyday. But since it's actually the guy who might have been a dishwasher last month cooking with a truckload of ingredients that came out of the Darden warehouse, I'm not so excited.

Don’t get me wrong; as I said, I generally like Olive Garden. They have decent food at reasonable prices. Granted, some of their food is pre-bagged and/frozen, but the majority of it is cooked fresh in-house. I particularly like Olive Garden's ravioli, for instance, and my wife likes the herb-grilled salmon. Olive Garden’s Alfredo-style sauce is a definite cut above many similar attempts. I love their smoked mozzarella fonduta and I absolutely devour their breadsticks. So if we've had a long day traveling or working out of town and we want to go someplace where we'll find food we like with no surprises, we look for the Olive Garden sign. Or sometimes for the Golden Arches, but I digress.

Giving credit where credit is due, Olive Garden's menus do vary slightly from city to city depending on season and market. And Olive Garden at least makes an effort to create a semi-authentic Tuscan atmosphere, although most Americans wouldn’t know an authentic Tuscan atmosphere if sat down next to them and started singing arias from Puccini.

And therein lies the real problem with Olive Garden; the American perception of Italian cuisine. Let’s face it, most people think of Italian food in terms of pizza and spaghetti. Therefore, anyplace that serves either pizza or spaghetti is an “Italian restaurant.” More so if they serve both! And the greatest Italian chef to come to the average American mind is Chef Boyardee. Olive Garden is kind of an example of “cogito ergo sum;” Americans think it's Italian, therefore it is.

Generally speaking, if you just want to take a date or some friends to an "Italian place," Olive Garden is a good, generic "Italian place." Even though it's about as Italian as the aforementioned Chef Boyardee. (A real Italian chef, by the way, who got himself Americanized beyond recognition.) The overall popularity of Olive Garden is attested by the fact that I have never – let me repeat, never – been to an Olive Garden where I did not have a wait of at least twenty minutes.

If you do get through the door and you want to have a little fun, walk up to the hostess stand and say, “Buona sera. Come stai? Vorrei un tavolo per due, per favore.” You just said, “Good evening. How are you? I would like a table for two, please,” but the frozen smile and the deer-in-the-headlights look you'll get is priceless. Seriously, though, don't try to order in Italian - they'll just look at you funny. They put lots of nice Italian words like “Toscano” and “al Forno” and “pomodoro” and “Milanese” on the menu, but most of the servers mispronounce them. And despite the Italian words, don't expect anything exotic or extravagant. The food is designed to be as middle of the road Italian-American as they can make it.

The atmosphere and decor are cookie cutter genuine faux Italian. From Maine to New Mexico, they all look, sound and smell. the same. Great for meeting with people on occasions where the ability to hear and converse it is not really important. Don't look for cozy, romantic corners. If you do manage to find one, they'll seat a noisy family of twelve at the next table.

One final word of advice to Olive Garden managers; if you want to be taken seriously as an authentic Italian restaurant, don’t print “Thank you, please come again” in Spanish on your receipt. Drives me absolutely nuts! (In Italian, the phrase is,“Grazie, per favore di venire di nuovo.”)

Bottom line, if you're looking for "real" Italian - whether at home or on the road – Olive Garden is not it. What Olive Garden represents is a nice, safe, undemanding, unexciting alternative. Finding the real thing often requires you to take the risks involved in trying some of the little out of the way places. Do some homework, ask around, look in the phone book or on the Internet. Or do as I sometimes do; drop in, check out the atmosphere and ask for a menu. You can find some great little authentic Italian gems that way.

Otherwise, there's always Olive Garden.

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