“Fast. Fresh. Italian.” Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad
To start with, I actually kind of like Fazoli's. I realize “actually kind of like” is not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it could be worse. The chain's current advertising hook is “Fast. Fresh. Italian.” To which I say, “Okay, two out of three ain't bad.” I say this because Fazoli's is about as Italian as hot dogs and apple pie. It's the American ideal of an Italian eatery, which is to say it's not very Italian at all.
Founded in 1988 in the cultural hotbed of Italian-ism that is Lexington, Kentucky, Fazoli's was a forerunner in the concept of fast Italian. Originally conceived as a pizza joint, it took Kuni Toyoda, a Japanese entrepreneur, to establish the format and menu as we now know it. Toyoda realized that the world didn't really need yet another pizza chain, but that there was a definite niche for fast-food-style pasta dishes. The early, pre-Toyoda pasta offerings were fairly dreadful: small portions of badly overcooked noodles. Toyoda was instrumental in (marginally) improving the quality of the pasta and increasing the portion size. Soon Fazoli's locations were springing up like dandelions. By the late 1990s, Fazoli's had become one of the most popular and fastest growing restaurant concepts in the country. It currently operates or franchises more than 320 restaurants in 27 states and is looking to expand overseas. The chain's appeal is driven by people searching for alternatives to the standard McDonald's/Burger King fast-food menu of burgers and fries. You've got to admit, nobody else is serving up fast-food spaghetti.
Fazoli's current menu consists of what it considers to be “classic Italian” dishes. Things like Chicken Parmigiano, Penne with Creamy Basil Chicken, Chicken Broccoli Penne, Ultimate (Chicken) Fettuccine, Three-Cheese Tortellini Alfredo, and Baked Spaghetti. And then there are the signature “Submarinos” sandwiches, featuring the likes of Turkey Mozzarella Fresco and Turkey Club Classico. Fazoli's also offers pizza, salads, desserts and, of course, unlimited garlic bread sticks. The problem here is that there's not a single authentic Italian item in the bunch. Everything is Italian-American at best and stuff made up to sound Italian at worst. For some reason, Americans just don't jibe with the idea that Italians don't put chicken in their pasta. In fact, Italians aren't much for mixing any kind of meat in with their pasta. You won't find anything “Alfredo” on an authentic Italian menu, and while turkey is a popular sandwich meat in Italy, piling it high on a toasted garlic sandwich roll with lettuce, bacon, mozzarella, and Parmesan peppercorn ranch dressing is anything but “classico.”
To add insult to injury, the few real Italian offerings on the menu are served up American-style. Dining at the Shallowford Road location in Chattanooga, Tennessee the other day, I ordered a simple spaghetti marinara. Now, they don't actually do spaghetti “marinara” in Italy: it's spaghetti al pomodoro, but I don't want to nitpick.....much. What I got was a heaping plate of bland spaghetti with a lot of red sauce dumped over the top. Sorry, that's not Italian. It may be what Americans have been conditioned to expect, but it's simply not Italian. Kuni Toyoda may have made inroads into introducing pasta cooked al dente, but he didn't quite get there and he definitely didn't do anything about the pasta's flavor – or lack thereof. Pasta has to be cooked in aggressively salted water in order to achieve any flavor of its own. Otherwise, it's bland and flavorless. And once it's been cooked, you can't dump enough salt on bland, flavorless pasta to make it taste anything other than salty. I know. I tried.
On the plus side, the tomato sauce with which they top the pasta isn't bad. The texture is good and the flavor is acceptable for the commercial sauce that it is. If only they would prepare the dish in the traditional Italian manner of finishing the cooked pasta in the sauce rather than just dumping the sauce over the top of the pasta. Cooking the pasta in the sauce for a final minute or two allows the flavors to marry and mingle. Ladling the sauce over the top of the cooked pasta does nothing for either element. But again, it's what American diners expect. I've had one or two customers in my restaurants object to “having it all mixed up.” To them I say, “What does this place look like, Fazoli's?”
Something to which I object is gargantuan portions. I had the hardest time breaking my cooks of the habit of piling enough pasta to feed an entire Italian family onto a plate being served to just one person. Kuni Toyoda succeeded in getting Fazoli's to Americanize their portion sizes. Neither my wife nor I could get anywhere near finishing the portions on our plates. And since we were traveling and boxing up leftovers was not a viable option, the food just went shamefully to waste. But to be fair, Fazoli's only provided us with twice as much food as we could eat. I've been in “Italian” places where I've been served three or four times what I'm capable of consuming – and I'm capable of consuming quite a lot. So Fazoli's is not bad by comparison.
And that's why I say I “actually kind of like” Fazoli's. Despite the advertising claims, it's not “classic” Italian. But it is pretty decent “Italian-ish” or Italian-American. The prices are very reasonable, the portions, while oversized, are not staggering, and the food is largely inoffensive. Service is very fast and generally friendly, two elements upon which Fazoli's prides itself. Fazoli's offers table service, another plus above the common fast-food experience. Much of the food is served on real plates with real metal flatware instead of paper plates and plastic sporks. The atmosphere is pleasant and unpretentious and the restaurants are usually pretty clean. Okay, maybe a little Dean Martin on the radio might have added to the ambiance better than Megadeth or whatever it was they were playing when I was there, but, hey, I'm old. What do I know? All and all, non c'è male.
Among the fast-food gamut of hockey-puck hamburgers, greasy chicken, unpalatable fish, and whatever the hell they put in those tacos, even mediocre Italian looks pretty good. So, if you are out and about and just can't stomach the thought of another anemic, run-of-the-mill burger, don't look for golden arches, look instead for a big tomato in the sky. Try Fazoli's and you might “actually kind of like” it, too.