It's Good But It Could Be So Much Better
If you're a regular reader of the scribbles that occupy this space you're already aware of my opinion of the ubiquitous “Italian” eatery that is Olive Garden. For lack of a better term, let's call it a “love-hate relationship.”
My advice to anybody seeking an Italian dining experience has always been, “Well, if there isn't an Italian restaurant around, there's always Olive Garden.” Truth be told, the fast-casual subsidiary of Florida-based Darden Restaurants, Inc. knows they're not anywhere near authentically Italian. They actually style themselves as an “American Italian restaurant” or an “Italian-themed” restaurant. And if all the charming European architecture and the rich Tuscan colors and the wine and the dishes with Italian sounding names tend to make people think it's an Italian restaurant, well......the corporate parent is not going to work too hard to correct the misconception.
In fact, they used to rather encourage it by touting the training their staff received at the so-called “Culinary Institute of Tuscany,” which is actually a small Tuscan resort hotel and restaurant in Riserva di Fizzano that rents itself out to OG in the off-season to make a few euros and to provide a nice vacation for the company's managers, many of whom report that their “training” consists of sitting around for a couple of hours discussing spices or fresh produce. Then they pose for pictures with an Italian chef. The pics go to the hometown newspapers and the employees go sightseeing on the corporate dime. Ah, but they do tour a winery, visit a fresh food market, and eat in some local restaurants. By those standards, I should qualify as an Olive Garden master chef. Once word about the “Institute” started getting around, however, Darden kind of backed off advertising it.
Unsurprisingly, a poll conducted a couple of years ago found that thirty-nine percent of Americans thought that Olive Garden was as Italian as Italian gets. Uffa! I weep for those thirty-nine percent. And therein lies the real problem; the American perception of Italian cuisine. Let’s face it, most people think of Italian food in terms of pizza and spaghetti. Therefore, anyplace that serves either pizza or spaghetti is an “Italian restaurant.” More so if they serve both! And the greatest Italian chef to come to the average American mind is Chef Boyardee. Olive Garden is kind of an example of “cogito ergo sum;” Americans think it's Italian, therefore it is.
Did I tell you about the time I ate in an Olive Garden in Alabama and commented to the waiter about the spaghetti? It 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 the aforementioned Chef Boyardee to be the ultimate in Italian cuisine.
And the reason the pasta lacked salt came to light a couple of years ago when an activist investor revealed that Darden/Olive Garden had stopped adding salt to its pasta cooking water in order to make the pots last longer! Dio mio in cielo! Cooking pasta with NO SALT? No frickin' wonder it's so utterly flavorless. Hey, you know tomatoes are awfully acidic. Maybe they should consider leaving them out of the tomato sauce to extend the life of those pots, too. What an utterly moronic affront to Italian cooking.
The investor published a 294 page report outlining everything he thought was wrong with Olive Garden. He mentioned the salt issue, for sure, but one of his other complaints was that, for an “Italian” restaurant, Olive Garden didn't serve enough Italian food. Fried lasagna? Really? Betcha they didn't learn that one at the “Culinary Institute.” How about the “loaded nacho chips” they tried to unload on us? Or the “Italiano Burger” with fries, created by a corporate chef concerned that Olive Garden was losing “burger craving” customers to places like Applebee's and Chili's. Of course, that particular chef got his start slinging pizza in Atlanta, so there you are.
Remember “pastachetti” and “soffatelli?” If you don't, that's okay; they're better forgotten. They were a couple of great examples of “if you can't make it, fake it.” There was nothing remotely Italian about these dishes. Somebody at corporate HQ in Florida just created some words that ended in vowels and added them to the menu for gullible American rubes to scarf down. They were, as Mashed writer Chris Heasman described them, “about as Italian as a man in lederhosen eating haggis on the banks of the Seine.” Gee, I wish I'd written that. The best I've come up with is that the food at Olive Garden is redolent of Rome and Florence. Rome, Georgia and Florence, Alabama, that is.
And the totally wacky thing is that after making up Italian names, when they come up with something that really is authentically Italian, they disguise it with an American name so Americans will know what it is! Case in point: arancini. Olive Garden calls them “risotto bites.” Oh well, at least give them credit for not calling them fried rice balls.
And does Olive Garden have something going on with Tyson or Perdue? They must because they seem to want to add chicken to everything. Chicken Parmigiana, Chicken Carbonara, Chicken Scampi, Stuffed Chicken Marsala, Zoodles Primavera with Grilled Chicken. (I can't believe I just typed the word “zoodles.”) You have no idea how annoyed I get when I order Fettuccine Alfredo and the server asks, “Do you want chicken with that?” (Sigh) There's nothing remotely Italian about Fettuccine Alfredo to begin with. But the American penchant for adding chicken – or any meat, for that matter – to pasta dishes completely defies Italian culinary principles. When you order a pasta dish, you do so because you want to taste the pasta. You don't want it smothered in cream sauce, you don't want it drowned in a quart of red sauce to which two cups of sugar have been added – although considering the dire lack of salt in Olive Garden's pasta, maybe those options aren't so bad – and you don't want it piled high with chunks of chicken. With apologies to carnivorous American palates, in Italy a plate of lightly dressed pasta is considered a meal. It doesn't “need” meat, as I've so often been told it does.
Oh, and by the way Olive Garden, all that up front soup and salad and breadstick stuff? You're doing it all wrong. It might be customarily American to serve soup or salad before a meal and to have loads of bread on the table as an “appetizer,” but that's not the Italian way of doing things. In an authentic Italian meal, the pasta comes out first. That's why they called it a “primo.” Soups and salads are served later in the meal progression and bread is an accompaniment not a course of its own.
But then that's not what Americans expect and you've got to give people what they expect if you want to stay in business. I've had many Italian friends who operate restaurants tell me that they have to serve stuff they'd never eat at home because customers expect it. Spaghetti and meatballs, for example. And quantities? Dai! Abbondanza be damned, no self-respecting Italian would ever eat as much food as gets piled on plates in American restaurants. The average serving portioned out to a single American diner would feed a family of four in an Italian household. My Italian friends know this, of course, but they say, “If I don't serve it like this, people will just go to Olive Garden.”
Believe me, I'm not alone in my low opinion of Olive Garden. There's even a Twitter feed for Olive Garden haters. One of the tweets says, “Cooking noodles doesn't make you Italian. On behalf of America, I'd like to apologize to Italy for @olivegarden.”
Don't get me wrong; I do eat at Olive Garden from time to time. Usually when I have gift cards someone has given me or when there's one located right next to my hotel or something. The “love” part of my relationship comes in that there are actually some very good things to be found at Olive Garden. The chicken gnocchi soup, for example, while not particularly “Italian,” isn't bad at all. I've duplicated the recipe and my wife likes mine better, but the original is still pretty good. Especially when they manage to get more than one or two gnocchi in the bowl. The “hate” part, however, is that there are also so many things that could be SO much better.
I could probably find 294 pages worth of my own Olive Garden criticisms but I'll spare you. Bottom line, if you're looking for Italian food, find one of the thousands of little Mom and Pop Italian places dotting the culinary landscape across the length and breadth of America. Ninety-nine-point-nine- percent of them will be Italian-American places but even the worst of them will be a better example of the cuisine than Olive Garden.
Or you might get lucky and stumble upon a place like Violino Ristorante Italiano in Winchester, Virginia. Now that's Italian! Or Galleria Umberto in Boston's North End. Best Sicilian pizza this side of Palermo. There used to be great places in Charlotte, North Carolina (Zarelli's) and in Orange Park, Florida (Ristorante Sarnelli), both sadly gone but fondly remembered just because they were so memorable. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper. I found some decent Italian food at an Italian family-run place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It's called – are you ready for this? – BLL Rotisserie Factory. Seriously. They're definitely not trading on some faux-Italian name, are they? But they serve some good Italian food, despite the funky name. (The specialty of the house, as you might guess, is rotisserie chicken.) Good Italian food is out there. You just have to look for it.
If, on the other hand, you're willing to settle for mediocre fast-casual fare, stuff that goes from truck to freezer to pot to plate like the stuff served at Applebee's, Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, and a dozen other chain places – except with vaguely Italian-sounding names – there's always Olive Garden.