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Repost: A Favorite From 2013

May 29, 2015

The Thing About Olive Garden
Originally posted: 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

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