Don't Call The Place “Italian”
Here we go again. Another round of cringe-worthy culinary concoctions from the kitchens of Olive Garden, this time in the forms of “deep dish spaghetti pie” and “breadstick sandwiches.”
The first abomination is what OG's pazzo executive chef, Jim Nuetzi, calls “a traditional Italian dish.” Jeez, it's hard to type with your fingers clenched and your hands gripping the edges of your desk. Basically, you take enough spaghetti to feed a large Italian family and stuff it in a pie crust. Then you bake it, cover it with cheese, and slather it with sauce. You can have either the “meatball deep dish” or the “chicken Alfredo” options. OG descibes the latter as “Spaghetti, seven cheeses and Italian bacon baked to perfection in a flaky crust and topped with grilled chicken and our homemade alfredo,”
I am drooling and foaming at the mouth here. Not with anticipation of either of these dishes, but with outrage that any idiota could possibly call them “traditional Italian.” In the first place, the only spot you'll find anything “Alfredo” in all of Italy is at Alfredo's in Rome. The dish does not exist otherwise and it only exists at Alfredo's because the turisti expect it. In the second place, mixing chicken with pasta is not something any Italian cook would ever do. So for this “traditional Italian” monstrosity you get to break two rules for the price of one. And the meatball option isn't any better. In Italy, you can have spaghetti and you can have meatballs, but you can't have spaghetti AND meatballs. Plopping a fist-sized meatball in a pile of pasta and a pool of red sauce and baking it in a pie crust does not make it resemble anything authentically Italian.
Now, to offer the benefit of the doubt – and maybe this is where the chef gets his “inspiration” – there are baked pasta dishes in Italian culinary tradition that often employ leftovers. You take a little of this and a little of that left over from last night's supper and bake it all in a baking dish for today's lunch. I've never heard of the pie crust twist. But does this qualify the concoction as a “traditional Italian” dish? Leftovers? Really? Meh.
And what can you say about a “sandwich” made of Italian-ish ingredients wedged between sliced breadstick halves? Again, Italians have “breadsticks” (grissini) and they have “sandwiches” (panini), but they most emphatically do not have “breadstick sandwiches.” Here your choices are among the ubiquitous meatballs, chicken parmigiana (another thoroughly non-Italian dish), “spicy Calabrian chicken” (whatever the hell that is), and “eggplant parmigiana,” something, at last, that really is Italian, although I would challenge you to find an Italian who would add it to a sliced up soft breadstick and call it a sandwich. And,of course, you can have any of these offerings with a side of French fries. Now that's “traditional Italian!” Uffa!
Don't get me wrong. I'm sure these things are all good. When my choices have been extremely limited, I have eaten at Olive Garden and the stuff they pile on the plates is generally unobjectionable in terms of taste and quality. It's middle-of-the-road, at best: not really bad but not all that good. What is objectionable is the fact that they call any of it “Italian.”
When they first opened in Orlando back in 1982, Olive Garden was a typical example of a “red sauce joint.” With a menu based on the Italian-America food that average Americans had come to consider “Italian” rather than on any form of actual, authentic Italian food, coupled with a faux-Italian décor, the place was a typical “Italian restaurant.” Through various ownership and management changes, it has evolved (?) into what it is today: yet another example of the kind of ho-hum, uninspired, cookie-cutter fast casual eatery that dominates the culinary landscape in the early 21st century. It has reached the current pinnacle/nadir of its existence by attempting to innovate through a strategy of blending American ideas with Italian (ish) ingredients. As a result, it has succeeded in being neither American or Italian. Heck, it's not even decent Italian-American. French fries? Breadstick sandwiches? What's next, hamburgers? Oh yeah....they tried that. Remember the forgettable “Italiano burger?”
Okay, so they have some Italian-looking and Italian-sounding stuff on the menu. It's easy to make something sound Italian. I remember a dish at a competing eatery called the “Piatto di Pollo.” “Piatto di Pollo!” It just sings Italian, doesn't it? It means “chicken plate.” And remember the scam a few years ago wherein OG advertised its “Tuscan Culinary Institute” and gave you the impression that all its cooks were being trained in Italian cooking at some sort of high end academy in Tuscany? The place turned out to be an Italian resort that the company rented in the off-season to which they sent a few employees for a vacation that included the opportunity to watch Italian cooks cook. And it's sad because there have been some real attempts at authenticity at Olive Garden now and then. But every time you think the place has turned a corner, it winds up leading to a dead end – like breadstick sandwiches with French fries. Why doesn't Darden just cut to the chase and stop calling the place “Italian?” Then they'd be free to openly make it into another Applebee's or Ruby Tuesday or Chili's. It's halfway there already. I mean, when your executive chef, the guy in charge of creating your menu, is a guy who used to make cheeseburgers at a steakhouse in Miami, where are you gonna go?
You know what I like at Olive Garden? The chicken and gnocchi soup. Here's what OG says about it: “This satisfying soup is made in our kitchens everyday with roasted chicken, traditional Italian potato dumplings, onion, celery, carrots and spinach. It isn't as rich as a chowder, but it's also not a true broth. Instead, our chefs mix both chicken broth and half and half for a light, yet creamy base. Add lots of vegetables, chicken and gnocchi, and the Olive Garden's Chicken and Gnocchi Soup is sure to become one of your favorites.” And you know what's Italian about it? Nothing. Oh wait, I take that back. It's got gnocchi in it and gnocchi is Italian. So.......instant classic!
I also like the tortellini al forno. This is a cheese and prosciutto-filled tortellini dish served in a Parmesan cream sauce and topped with crumbled bacon. Like the soup, it's about as Italian as sushi on a stick. Don't misunderstand me. It's delicious. I replicated the recipe and I make it at home all the time. Same with the soup. But both are examples of the way OG and similar places correctly assume that if they stick a recognizable Italian ingredient or two in a dish and give it a name with lots of appropriately placed vowels, undiscriminating diners will accept without question that they are eating “traditional” or “authentic” Italian dishes. “Piatto di Pollo,” indeed. That's how Olive Garden maintains its illusory spot as America's favorite “Italian” restaurant. And it's also why you see as many Italians eating there as you see Mexicans hanging out at Taco Bell.
Spaghetti pies and breadstick sandwiches are just two of the reasons I maintain, as I have for years, that if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Olive Garden.