Restaurant Chain Sacrifices Flavor to Save Money on POTS!
I knew it, I knew it, I KNEW it! Time and again, when circumstances have led me to eat at Olive Garden, I have complained to the waitstaff about the unseasoned blandness of the pasta. I've said it again and again, “It's like they're not putting enough salt in the water. Turns out I was right!
In a report released by Starboard Value, an investor in Olive Garden's parent company, Darden, it is stated that in order to get an extended warranty on its pots, Olive Garden no longer salts the pasta cooking water! Did you get that? In order to get an extended warranty on POTS, the brilliant minds behind the “modern taste of Italy” have opted to ruin the quality of their food. The report opines, "This appalling decision shows just how little regard management has for delivering a quality experience to guests."
Every single Italian cook I know – as well as all the married ones – will emphatically tell you that the first step, the very first and most essential step in cooking pasta is salting the water in which the pasta cooks. You cannot – underline cannot – impart flavor to pasta any other way. Salting the water allows pasta to be seasoned internally as it swells, releases starch, and absorbs water. Once the pasta has cooked, no amount of salting at the table will give it flavor. It'll just taste salty.
Most Italian cookbooks use words like “generous” when it comes to salting the water. Mario Batali advocates “aggressive” salting. Many cooks say the cooking water should taste “like the sea.” The rule of thumb is about one tablespoon of salt per quart of water. That would be four tablespoons, or about a quarter cup, per gallon. Some cooks go with a tablespoon per two quarts, or about two tablespoons per gallon. Personally, I split the difference and use three tablespoons per gallon. People who use a teaspoon or a pinch or no salt at all because it's “healthier” are just deluding themselves.
There are 28,319 mg of sodium in a quarter-cup of salt. When you dump it into four quarts of water and add dried pasta, the pasta only absorbs about three percent of the sodium. The rest goes down the drain. Assuming you're eating pasta like a normal person, i.e. a two-ounce serving, that's a little less than 300 mg of sodium out of your recommended 2,300 mg daily limit. Even less if you only use three tablespoons of salt, like I do. Eliminate the salt and you eliminate the flavor. Like Olive Garden does.
The rationale here is that salting water can cause pitting in stainless steel surfaces. There's a mile-long scientific explanation, but it boils down to – pardon the pun – the interaction between the chloride in sodium chloride (salt), oxygen in water, and chromium in stainless steel. And once the pot is pitted, it's pitted. Of course, you can avoid the problem by letting the water come to a full, rolling boil before adding the salt. But that would make too much sense. Better to 86 the salt – and the flavor – and preserve the pot. The crowned heads at Darden long ago figured out that nobody who eats at Olive Garden would know good Italian food if it bit them in the ass anyway, so they figure they've got nothing to lose by further desecrating their flavors in order to save a few shekels on cookware.
Other chain Italian places, like Maggiano's and Carrabba's, must get better deals on their pots, because they aren't afraid to add salt to their pasta cooking water. Which probably accounts for why both of them were rated higher than Olive Garden in recent national surveys. Of all the ludicrous excuses I've heard for pinching a few pennies, fundamentally changing the nature and quality of your primary product in order to get a better deal on pots has got to be the stupidest and most shortsighted one out there. Okay, Italians, say it with me: Uffa! Che schifo!
Come on, Olive Garden. Tell me again how you “aim to make every guest experience feel more like modern Italy.” If bland, flavorless, badly cooked pasta is an example of “modern Italy,” I'll take old Italy any day.
You know what might be fun? And I'm just a big enough jerk to do it? Next time you go to Olive Garden, bring your own pot and say, “Here. I don't want to ruin your pots, so cook my pasta in this. And use plenty of salt.” Wonder what they'd do. They'd probably cite health code restrictions, but it would be fun to try. And it might deliver a message to management about their “focus on flavor that is uniquely Italian.” It may be unique, alright, but it's definitely not Italian.