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!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Go Olive Garden?" I Don't Think So

Olive Garden Takes Another Step Away From Being an Italian Restaurant

Anybody who reads my writing regularly – my, wasn't that alliterative? – knows how I feel about Italian restaurant chains, particularly Olive Garden. I eat there once in awhile – usually when I'm on the road and the choice is between there or Burger King. As I've frequently said, if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Olive Garden. But Darden Restaurant's latest marketing move might make me reassess that statement.

Before I go forward, let me back up. I ate at an Olive Garden recently; I had been given a gift card by well-meaning people who knew I “like Italian food.” <Sigh> So, I'm in town for a game and there's an Olive Garden and I've got this card........

Most dishes on Olive Garden's menu aren't too offensive; they aren't too Italian, but they aren't too offensive. It was late at night and I didn't want to go real heavy, so I ordered a simple spaghetti marinara. I specifically asked, as I always do in such places, for a real Italian portion. By that I mean something that's not served up in a feed trough carried to the table by two servers. Generally, a “child's” portion is what I wind up with. I can eat at least half of that.

As usual, the spaghetti was overcooked and bland. The sauce was okay for something that came out of a bag. The waiter came by and asked, “How is everything?” So, I told him. I asked him point-blank if the pasta came pre-packaged, refrigerated, and was just thrown into hot water and he said, “Yes, I think so.” Then he asked why I asked. I explained that the pasta was a little past al dente and that it had no flavor, as if there had been absolutely no salt added to the water. He commented, “People like you can always tell.” People like me. In other words, people who don't consider Chef Boyardee to be the ultimate in Italian cuisine. Then this Olive Garden waiter, standing in the middle of his own Olive Garden restaurant, asked me if I had ever been to a certain downtown Italian ristorante, the name of which I'm redacting to protect the guy's job. I was quite familiar with the place and I started explaining to him why the pasta there was so much better. I talked about artisanal suppliers and the superior texture of the pasta resulting from its being extruded through brass dies, and stuff like that. He thanked me for the information! All in all, other than encountering a refreshingly candid waiter, it was a typical Olive Garden experience. (I related this story to my son, a former waiter at another Italian chain place. “Geez, dad. At least we cooked our own pasta before we threw it in the refrigerator and reheated it.” See why I avoid chain places?)

(Image courtesy Business Insider)
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: Darden's new bone-headed marketing ploy. According to an Associated Press story, “Olive Garden is tossing out its famous 'When You’re Here, You’re Family' slogan to cater to a more modern lifestyle.” Oh, joy. Now it's going to be “Go Olive Garden.” I can't say for sure, but this sounds like it was written by the same dreadful hack who convinced the pork people to ditch “The Other White Meat” in favor of “Be Inspired.” Or maybe the guy who sold McDonald's on “I'm Lovin' It,” my personal winner for Most Despised Slogan.

The AP story continues: “Instead of evoking Old World charm, the new ads will feature brightly lit snapshots of modern life — little girls at ice skating practice, a woman striking a yoga pose, a group of friends taking a picture of themselves with a smart phone.” Doesn't that just scream “Italian?” Doesn't that just make you want to chow down on a platter of pasta? Doesn't that just make you sick?

According to one Jay Spenchian, Darden's executive vice president of marketing, the image of the traditional long family meal no longer reflects today’s hectic lives. And Olive Garden no longer reflects an Italian restaurant. It's become Applebee's with pasta.

In fact, in a blatant rip-off of Applebee's “2 for $20” gimmick, Olive Garden plans to serve up a “Dinner Today, Dinner Tomorrow” offering whereby you can grab a meal for now and they'll pack one up for you to take home. Kind of like leftovers, only on a grander scale.

They're trying to steer gullible mean, potential customers into seeing Olive Garden not as a place where you have to come in and sit down with the whole family for a big meal, but more as a place where you can just dash in and grab a quick something for yourself. Ugh!

Can you think of anything more antithetical to the traditional Italian way of life? Italian meals are supposed to be leisurely family affairs where everybody sits down at the table and enjoys good food, good wine, and good conversation. “When You're Here, You're Family” is what it's all about! Any greasy spoon diner, dive, or truck stop can shovel out plates full of food for the hurried traveler on the go. This is what Darden wants? To be a high-priced truck stop with an Italian-sounding name? Go for it, buddies.

On the bright side, Olive Garden plans to emphasize what it calls “Lighter Italian Fare;” dishes that have 575 calories or less. Oh, you mean something closer to real Italian food? Something that doesn't come heaped up on a platter with “endless” side items? That's a step in the right direction.

But the idea of abandoning all semblance of even faux-Italian culture in favor of the “modern” way of life is revolting. If I want Italian fast-food, I'll go to Fazoli's.

Come to think of it, Fazoli's recent “upgrade” includes an attempt to look more Italian. They've done away with the schlocky décor and covered their walls with pictures of families enjoying Italian food. They, too, have a line of “light” entrees – except theirs have 400 calories or less. The food quality is about the same as Olive Garden's and it's cheaper.

Va bene! The decision is made. If I'm no longer “Like Family” at Olive Garden, I simply won't “Go.” From now on, if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Fazoli's.

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