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The Thing About Olive Garden

March 19, 2013

Last week Chuck Miller threw down the gauntlet. He called out this blog by name after he went to Olive Garden for dinner…and loved it.

There are some people who reflexively hate chain restaurants. I’m not one of those. My love for Chipotle is well documented. I take the children to Taco Bell with what I consider to be an alarming frequency (in reality it’s probably about once a month). When I’m on the road I’ll drive through McDonald’s for fries or grab a brewed coffee at Starbucks.

My problem with Olive Garden has nothing to do with it being a chain, or the fact that you can opt for almost identical menu items at an array of independent locally owned and operated independent restaurants. You can read his post in its entirety, but Chuck had the seafood Alfredo and his girlfriend had the chicken parmesan.

I understand Chuck’s situation. I too occasionally enjoy a chain restaurant that is reviled by others. Except today I’m going to use this common ground to show why Olive Garden is actually worse. So let’s talk briefly about Hooters.

Their wings are amazing. One of the things that makes them special, and why I’m willing to sit in a booth alone and try to not look creepy (you know, like that creepy single dude in the booth next to me), is because I can’t get wings like this anywhere else. It’s a combination of the breading and the sauce.

Breaded wings in this part of the world are considered to be an insult to the form. I blame our northern position to the Mason-Dixon line and our proximity to Buffalo. What Hooters makes aren’t Buffalo wings. They are just super crispy, with even more sauce holding capacity than unbreaded wings. Sure, you lose that crisp skin. But as a sauce lover it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to accept once every now and again.

HOWEVER…

Let’s imagine a world where everything is the same, except for one small but meaningful difference. Let’s say Hooters decided to stake a claim to the noble Buffalo wing. In this world they haven’t changed their breading or their sauce. They are just calling them Buffalo wings. And perhaps they have a little blurb on their menu and on their website about how every year they send their cooks to Duff’s and the Anchor Bar, to become inspired and bring what they learned back to their local kitchens.

Some might be inclined to call it a crime against Buffalo wings.

Down the street from Olive Garden is Ralph’s Italian-American Tavern. There you might find chicken parmesan and a seafood alfredo that’s made with garlic, and you won’t hear me complain about that. Ever. Mostly because they aren’t pretending their food is something that it isn’t.

Tuscany is a place. That place has a culture. Part of that culture is its cuisine. The cuisine has a rich heritage that is built on beans, bread and olive oil. Olive Garden pretends to care about such things yet will throw the word “Tuscan” on dishes that have nothing to do with the region.

Maybe the corporate office will claim that it was inspired by a Tuscan dish and then modified for American tastes. But then the restaurant is not exactly delivering on its promise of, “A genuine Italian dining experience.”

Making food tasty isn’t hard. Salt and fat are the secrets to restaurant kitchens around the world. Good taste shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiter of whether a restaurant is good or not. But rather, it should be measured by its own yardstick. Is it doing the things it claims to be doing, and at a level high enough to provide a good value for the price?

Olive Garden doesn’t.

Honestly, if they didn’t put on such airs, I’d have nothing to complain about. I’m not going to get worked up about Chili’s, Buca Di Beppo, or IHOP. Sure, I could pull out a handful of nits about each place. But none of them pushes the same buttons as Olive Garden.

This isn’t just one person’s opinion either. Marcella Hazan, who is an Italian food cookbook writer, ran a cooking school in Italy, and is widely considered to be an expert on the cuisine of the country, famously took a visit to Olive Garden with USA Today.

In general, I have a track record for respecting other people’s intellectual property. However, a search of the USA Today website shows the post is no longer there. And in an effort to preserve this treasure from being lost to the ages, I’ll repost a reposted copy I found online. I can’t check it against the original, but it’s consistent with my memory of the piece.

Man, I love this woman.

SARASOTA, Fla. — What’s wrong with Italian cooking in America? Too much garlic, too little salt and much of what’s on the menu at Olive Garden, says Marcella Hazan.

This is her first trip to an Olive Garden, but she has visited the company’s Web site and found cause for alarm in a pasta recipe. “It says six cloves of garlic. Six! And they say to put garlic and onions together while you brown the onions. If you do that, the garlic will be burned.”

As she turns to the menu, her face clouds with concern. “Manicotti doesn’t exist in Italy,” she says, running a skeptical eye over the entrees. “Spaghetti with meatballs doesn’t exist in Italy. And this is the first time I ever see fettuccine Alfredo with garlic.”

The food arrives.

Soup: Zuppa Toscana. Creamy broth of sausage, potatoes and greens.

“Not bad,” Marcella says. But not Tuscan, either. Real Tuscan soups, she says, contain bread, mashed beans and olive oil, all of which are absent from this broth. “For a mass-market restaurant, this is an admirable dish,” Victor says as he sips. “We just don’t recognize it as Italian.”

First course: Penne Romana. Green beans, tomatoes and olive oil tossed with penne noodles and white wine herb sauce.

Marcella looks sad. The problem? The sauce is bland. The beans are undercooked and should have been cut so they could be eaten without the use of a knife. Undercooked beans “have the taste of grass,” Marcella explains, shaking her head. “I don’t know why they do it. It’s all wrong.”

Second course: Tortelloni di Fizzano. Pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, served in a beef and pork Bolognese sauce.

“This is bad. This is really bad,” Marcella says. She stares into the bowl. “This is Bolognese sauce?” She reaches for a menu in disbelief. Bolognese it is. “Poor Bologna,” she sighs. Her complaints: The pasta is “gummy” and the Bolognese has no subtlety or flavor. Tortelloni requires a lighter sauce of tomato or butter, she says.

Victor finds the cheese and spinach filling to be “heavy-handed.” Marcella nods in agreement. Everyone looks glum. “I must console myself,” Marcella says. She orders a Jack Daniel’s.

Third course: Lobster Spaghetti. Lobster and spinach sautéed with olive oil in a creamy broth and served over spaghetti.

Marcella renders judgment in a word.
“No,” she says, pushing her bowl away.

The criticism pours forth. These are pre-cooked noodles, soft, soggy and underdone, she says. The sauce is not properly reduced, and there is too much of it. The lobster meat tastes boiled, not sautéed.

Fourth course: Pork Filettino. Grilled pork tenderloin marinated in olive oil and rosemary, served with roasted potatoes.

Marcella looks distraught, unable to go on. Reluctantly, she turns to the pork. She takes a bite and suddenly brightens. “This is not bad. The meat is very tender. The potatoes are sautéed, so they catch the flavor.” She stops to weigh the importance of what she is about to say. “This is a winner.”

The Hazans say the food that they have tasted bears little resemblance to authentic Italian cuisine. “But if they can come close with a dish like the pork, with the taste and presentation and the potatoes, why can’t they do it with all the dishes?” Victor asks. “There is potential.” He also commends Olive Garden for its decision to serve better wines. He notes that Rocca delle Macie’s Chianti Classico Riserva, which costs $24, “has improved quite a bit” in recent years. Bertani’s $110 bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella “is very good, respectable wine.”

But Marcella has questions. “There are 60,000 recipes in Italy. Why do they have to invent new ones like Lobster Spaghetti?” Olive Garden must “guide and teach” its customers, she says, delighting them with surprises rather than giving in to the tried-and-true.

By Jim Cox

12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2013 10:33 am

    I enjoyed this article. I am not a fan of chain restaurants. Yet, I recognize they have their place. Certainly, I too, find myself having a quick meal in many of them. It can not be avoided. My family loves them. Every dinner out with the family usually ends up in a chain (Bucca, Chili’s, TGIF, Applebee’s). I have to be honest and say that I cringe every time I go. But, I go none the less . . . it’s my family, after all, that I am going to spend time with. The food is less important when the company is worthy.

    Marcella Hazan says too little salt. On one hand, I completely disagree. The chain’s we end up at have so much sodium in every plate that by the time you get to your car, your ankles have swollen up so bad that your sneakers literally pop off your feet and you have a wicked case of “FAT BACK” Fat back is what happens after a high sodium dish . . . it’s that feeling you get that every part of you is jiggling . . . even parts of you that should NEVER jiggle . . like your back. The whole ride home, my family goes on and on and on about how they can feel the “Fat Back” kicking in. I opted for the salad. Not because I wanted to spend $12 on a salad. But because, I am skipping a round of Fat Back this time.

    On the other hand, I can understand Marcella Hazan and the too little salt issue. I agree that many italian chains have little to no flavor in their sauce. My experience with these are limited, as I typically do not do italian chains at all. It’s merely a personal choice due to my college years, working in one for a brief moment. I recall how the pasta came in already cooked in a plastic bag. The line cook would toss that ol bag in the microwave and poof . . dinner is done.

    It’s fast, less expensive (Sometimes), and it works in a pinch. I understand. Just last week, after I had my knee surgery . . I sat with Mom at Applebees. She was kind enough to take me to lunch. I appreciated the effort. I simply enjoyed a salad and was grateful.

    I also believe, that with a little effort, you can get a great ‘made from scratch’ meal for the same cost as the chains, if you do a little exploring. I will take Madame Chef fried chicken over Kentucky Fried any day. I would skip Bucca and head to TJ’s Cave for an eggplant parm from scratch. Doesn’t mean I don’t eat at chains. But I have to say, I never got Fat Back from TJ’s, Madame Chef, or enjoying a burger at New World Bistro! I prefer to eat fresh, when I can.

  2. March 19, 2013 10:36 am

    Agree with you completely.

    The comments over there made me chuckle: “The food snobs on the other blog dont really care about the quality of the food. They just like to brag about being seen at an expensive place.”

    I don’t think that commenter (commentor? commentator?) is reading this blog. Not to mention that for the quality of food you get at OG, it’s very expensive. It’s good because it’s engineered to be (science!), not because it’s authentic.

  3. March 19, 2013 11:00 am

    IT sounds like your beef with Olive Garden is mostly a matter of semantics. I think it’s part of a bigger issue. EVERYTHING American’s consider an “authentic” representation (or re-creation) of a foreign dish or other such product are just authentic replicas of replicas of replicas.

    If you go overseas you realize how inaccurate our stereotypes and perceptions of other countries are (though I guess that’s why they’re called stereotypes). What most Americans associate with foreign lands are just Hollywood exaggerations and cultural cliches. When it comes to our knowledge of anything outside of America all we have to go by are movies, tv shows, internet memes, and commercials. We stupidly assume they’re accurate.

    To be fair, it goes by ways. For some reason the rest of the world thinks all Americans are cowboys. Never understood why.

    But anyway, if I’m reading you right you’re saying your beef with Olive Garden is that they claim so many of their dishes to be “authentic” Italian and they are not? Fair enough. But I’d say that’s true even of the local Italian restaurant too since, as the article says, there’s no spaghetti and meatballs in Italy.

  4. Stevo permalink
    March 19, 2013 11:14 am

    I remember reading an interview of a food writer in NYC. He mentioned that friends and relatives from out of town often would ask him where to go in the City for good Italian food. He would send them to Babbo’s. Invariably they hated it. They really didn’t want true Italian cuisine, they wanted a better version of Olive Garden.

  5. March 19, 2013 12:06 pm

    I have the exact same issue with so-called ‘California’ food.

  6. -R. permalink
    March 19, 2013 12:11 pm

    I loved the reprint of Marcella Hazan’s article – thanks for including it. While I’ve never been to an Olive Garden, nor plan to go anytime soon, I do understand its place in the American landscape; it’s essentially Italian/American fast food – safe, unassuming, overpriced and boring. I think the most important thing to take away from today’s post is not necessarily the disingenuous nature of Olive Garden’s so-called ‘Tuscan inspired menu’, but rather the fact that you are eating purely American food, with just a wee touch of immigrant influence diluted in. In my nearly dozen trips to Italy proper, I’ve never run across a single item on their menu, except perhaps the basic steak. Parmesan encrusted anything? Never – I have never had a breaded anything over there. They like to enjoy the quality of the ingredients, not hide/slather/bury them. Breaded and deep fried calamari would be laughed off the table. In many ways, I think contemporary Italian/American cooking is reflective of the nature of the ingredients available, the American propensity toward large portions served and eaten quickly, and a need to pander to wide range of palates. If you remember Cavaleri’s, you understand – huge portions of bland food, slathered in sauce, covered in cheese and enjoyed by many.

  7. March 19, 2013 2:17 pm

    I took the kids to Olive Garden years ago, on a wet cold day the soup, salad, breadsticks special beckoned. I have to say, I really liked the Zuppa Toscano. Everything else, a big fat ‘meh, don’t bother’. So, I looked up some knockoff recipes on the internet, and did a few tweaks of my own – like eliminating the potatoes in favor of white beans, using good sausage, homemade chicken stock, etc. It’s one of my favorite soups in this kind of weather.

  8. March 19, 2013 8:37 pm

    Never having been to a Hooter’s or an Olive Garden, I couldn’t help noticing that it’s apparently a marvelous reinvention to add breading to buffalo wings at Hooter’s, but sacrilegious to Americanize Italian dishes. (And not for nothing but bringing Marcella Hazan to Olive Garden for a critique is like bringing Eric Ripert to Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.) It was the advertising department that brought us “Tuscan” and (“Super Tuscan”), not the kitchen. Just sayin.

    • March 21, 2013 7:36 am

      But, he specifically said that Hooters doesn’t pretend they are *Buffalo* wings. They’re listed on their menu as chicken wings. (Or so he says – I can’t say for certain what the menu says, the last time I went to Hooters it was in Crossgates.) Personally, I think they are kind of gross, but he does have a point here.

      I don’t like the Olive Garden because I think their food is gross. Period, full stop. However, I also happen to think that, with the exception of a very few places, most of the Italian food in this area is overhyped and overpriced. (I include the Olive Garden in that, by the way.) I’ve gotten so I avoid Italian food in general in Albany, with the exception of Cardona’s takeout bar or pizza from Marisa’s or DeFazio’s.* My husband’s family is from Long Island, and the Italian (American) food (which even there is far more varied than here) is cheaper and it’s better.

      Also, the comments on that post were just plain ignorant. NORTHERN Italian cuisine (which, by calling themselves “Tuscan”, the Olive Garden claims to produce) is very different from SOUTHERN Italian cuisine. The latter is more popular with Americans. I also want to know if doodle has ever actually tried asparagus and rabbit.

      *Has anyone had the entrees at DeFazio’s? C and I look at the menu and are curious, but inevitably we order pizza because their pizza is just so.damn.good.

  9. March 19, 2013 11:59 pm

    I think I’ve had two meals at Olive Garden: one about twenty years ago, shortly after they got started (I think), and one a few years back. Both weren’t bad, really… not models of authenticity, but tasty. I was prepared the first time around to be wholly disappointed after reading somewhere that the chain was based in Orlando, reminding me somehow of the Disneyfication of Times Square. But the food didn’t taste bad; just a little nondescript – and I had a similar experience the second time around.

    What distinguishes an Italian-American restaurant from Olive Garden is that, as you point out, it emerges from a unique experience – that of immigrants coming to the U.S. and developing their own cuisine that combines the dishes they brought from home, the ingredients they found when they got here, and the innovations they produced in their kitchens. The same is true for other ethnic cuisines. A Chinese restaurant here (unless you’re talking about a place like Koi Palace in Daly City), generally bears little resemblance to an eatery found in any region of China. The difference with Olive Garden is that, as I recall, the original marketing plan involved testing recipes in different regions of the country and tailoring menus to local tastes. That doesn’t reflect heritage; it evinces the arguably cynical idea that a company should give people exactly what they want without regard to process or history.

    A restaurant is not the same as a home kitchen: you have to make food that enough people will buy to make your business successful. So you include certain elements that make your cuisine distinctive, but tame them a bit when necessary so as not to turn off people unfamiliar with that style of cooking. In major metropolitan areas and in regions with large immigrant communities, there are usually places where natives can find fairly authentic renditions of dishes from their native regions. I like to seek out such places; it’s one of the great joys of my life. But a lot of people don’t feel the same way. They want their “authenticity” tempered a little bit. They’re not Andrew Zimmern; they’re looking for a nice dinner with an adventuresome twist. I don’t look down on them for that – I just look for kindred spirits when I get the urge for something a little more obscure.

    Olive Garden serves its purpose. It feeds a lot of people at low prices, and it doesn’t taste that bad, based on my limited (and not likely to increase) experience. I don’t wish the organization ill. But I do agree with you that its marketing tries to convey an authenticity that the chain doesn’t really have.

  10. flopdanutz permalink
    March 20, 2013 6:50 pm

    Olive Garden is good for one thing, unlimited salad with the cheapest meal you can find on the menu.

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