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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Monday, December 2, 2013

Olive Garden Yanks Out a Few More of Its Italian Roots

You Want Fries With That?

Just when you thought Olive Garden couldn't possibly be less of an example of an authentic Italian restaurant, they come up with another brilliant idea to distance themselves from their identity. Now they wanna be a burger joint. Enter the “Italiano Burger.”

This latest dumbing down of the menu consists of a six-ounce burger topped with mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, pesto, tomatoes, and aioli. And, yes, it comes with fries. Parmesan garlic fries, of course. Gotta stay Italian, right?

What's next? A clown mascot with an Italian accent?

I'm not saying the burger doesn't sound delicious, but it's about as authentically Italian as Chicken Alfredo, another of the chain's signature "Italian" dishes.

The move comes as a knee-jerk response to increased competition among so-called “casual dining” establishments. This competition has forced a lot of “refining” – to use their word – of the Olive Garden menu. First, they pared down their original menu. Of late, they've been trying to appeal to cost conscious diners with three-course meal options. And they've gone after the young trendy crowd with small plate offerings. They abandoned their long-standing “family” marketing strategy in favor of something allegedly more appealing to hip, edgy, consumers on the “go.” It worked for me. Every time I see an Olive Garden, I say, “Go. Anywhere else. Just go.”

Apparently Clarence Otis, the CEO at Darden Restaurants, thinks the best way for a pseudo-Italian eatery to compete with classic American places like Applebee's, Chili's, and Ruby Tuesday is to become more like them. I guess the idea of becoming a better Italian restaurant never crossed his mind. It's easier to lower the bar than it is to raise it. And when your financial backers are looking at falling numbers and pushing for changes, you take the cheap, easy way out and become a burger joint. An Italian burger joint. Hey, there's one on every corner in Rome, right? Not!

A Sicilian chef named Paolo Lafata used to be the executive chef at OG. I don't know if they showed him the door or what, but now Jim Nuetzi, a guy who started out slinging pizzas in Atlanta, is calling the shots and he's the one you can thank for this latest burger debacle. Seems even the head guys at Darden were reluctant to go the burger and fries route, but Nuetzi won them over with his concoction of an all-American staple made with Italian ingredients. And French fries. Uffa!

You know, there are cheap little Mom & Pop restaurants with Italian-sounding names all over the country that get by on serving spaghetti and burgers in an attempt to be everything to everybody. You probably have one or two in your town. If you also have an Olive Garden, you now have one more.

I want to like Olive Garden. I really do. But they keep making it harder and harder. I've read dozens of comments on various sites from people who say they really used to like Olive Garden. It used to be unique, it used to be a good place to take the family, you could get at least sort of Italian food there that you couldn't get anywhere else. But in recent years the chain has cut its menu, lowered the quality of its food, and raised its prices. Even their new “Italiano” burger is weighing in at a hefty ten bucks.

Maybe the time has come for a remake. Let Darden shutter all 800-plus restaurants and rebrand them as some sort of classic American place. Then they could be just like Applebee's and Chili's and all the rest. They could serve steak and seafood and burgers and wings and be just like dozens of other eateries. No need to keep up an Italian front that has been slipping away for years. Or they might do something really radical and try to become a real Italian restaurant. Do away with the faux-Tuscan trappings and the overpriced Americanized menu and serve authentic Italian food at affordable prices. And the dish could run away with the spoon while the cow is busy jumping over the moon. That's more likely to happen first.

Mexican food is a fast-growing element on the American dining scene. Look for Olive Garden to add tacos to their menu next. I actually visited an Olive Garden that was attached to a Red Lobster. Since Darden owns both properties, why not knock out the wall and make an Italian seafood place that also serves burgers and fries? Sooner or later you'll pander sufficiently to the lowest common denominator and you're bound to make a buck or two, right?

In the meantime, how does “McOlive Garden” sound to you?

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