Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olive Garden

There's a lot of hate out there for Olive Garden in foodie circles.  It appears to go beyond them just being an easy target.  It goes beyond having a philosophical problem with chains in general.  Even Tony Bourdain has weighed in on it.   You just don't see this same level of hate for, say, Boston's, BJ's, Chili's, or Friday's.

I can't help but wonder why.  Perusing google I've found a number of actual blogs dedicated to Olive Garden haters.  A couple are from people who have worked at them, and yes, I can understand animosity towards nearly any job that someone would have at any chain restaurant. The ones I don't quite understand are the ones that just hate them to hate them. 

Is it the food?  Some say that it's all frozen and reheated.  Which has been debunked by numerous people who actually work in their kitchens (for example, and here, although disgruntled ex-employees have said otherwise).

Some say the food's not "authentically Italian".  I've been to Italy. What we in the US call "Italian" is not the same thing Italians call Italian when it comes to food. Americans whine about the food when they visit Italy.  That should tell you something.  Primarily, Americans don't want authentic Italian food.  They want what they think is authentic Italian food. They want their pasta sauced to the gills.  They want heaps of garlic.  They want bread served with dipping oil or sauces. They want everything served on one plate or they want to eat pasta as the entirety of their meal.  That stuff isn't done in Italy, where freshly made (rarely dried) pasta is often served with high quality oil and some grated cheese, maybe a few herbs or capers thrown in as well.  In Italy pasta is a course in a meal but not the entire meal. The food there is meant to show off the quality of the ingredients, not to see how many calories can be packed upon a single plate.  So, really, if you want authentic Italian you first have to change your attitude about what constitutes a meal. Olive Garden does a pretty good job of giving Americans what they expect. 

Is it the branding of the restaurant?  Well...this is probably where most of the haters fuel their rage.  The commercials are pretty annoying. And you do see the restaurants in all major metropolitan areas. The clientele is a mix of every population you see in the US and people dress very casually.  Often it's loud and crowded.  And there's usually a wait to get in because of the popularity of the restaurant. Olive Garden, for better or worse, is what happens when corporate America gets ahold of Italian-American food and markets it to the masses. 

But is that a bad thing?

The Lovely Spouse and I recently went to our local Olive Garden.  It's a newer restaurant as the old one burned to the ground in what I seem to remember was a kitchen fire.

As is typical for this location we were told there was a short wait so we went to the bar and ordered drinks.  The local Olive Garden has a knack for hiring really good, personable bartenders. Who are often poached by other restaurants.  Hey, good for them.

Margarita with an amaretto chaser. No, it's not Italian. However the bartender said he's really good at making margaritas. And this one was delicious.  
Generally the wait is quicker than the time we're given by the host/hostess.  As was the case during our most recent visit.  Pro-tip: if you go to the local Olive Garden here in BCS, if you don't have a large group request to NOT sit in the back room.  It's usually very loud.  This is usually not a problem in the rest of the restaurant.

NOT the back room. The regular dining areas are actually rather nice. Everything's very clean.
On the particular evening we were there we had gift cards so we splurged.  Thanks to the friends and family who give them to us for gifts!   Here's the regular dinner menu.  I've been told that both the lunch menu and dinner menu are available all day. There is also a gluten-free menu. Sadly there is no allium-free menu, but there isn't one anywhere else either so I'm not expecting it.

We started with an appetizer (along with salad and bread sticks).  I can't eat the bread sticks so those have no appeal to me. [Yes, servers can bring bread sticks without the garlic on them.  But it's a pain the butt for everyone involves so I don't bother.]
Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta. True to its name it has a smoky flavor and is served piping hot and gooey. It comes with sliced baguette.  It's an appetizer The Lovely Spouse and I, unable to eat garlic, can share.
And we both got entrees.
The Lovely Spouse got Chicken Marsala and substituted (gasp!) pasta for the potatoes. He likes cheese on his, which is something you just don't ever see in Italy, however common it is in the States. The chicken marsala is actually pretty good at Olive Garden.  Better than I've had at many mom-and-pop Italian restaurants in the States.
I tried something new: the Seafood Brodetto.  Our server assured me that it was not garlicky.  And, true to the claim, it wasn't. BUT it was chock full of uncooked onions.  So I sopped up the broth with the bread and ate the fish around it.  And I brought it home with the purpose of sieving out the onions and making a stock to serve over rice.  The flavor of everything here is actually pretty good. The veggies were still crisp, including the spinach.  The only reason I won't order it again is the onions. Not their fault, but now I know.
Other dishes we've had there repeatedly that we highly recommend: Mixed Grill (steak and chicken, grilled, and served with grilled veggies and potatoes), Chianti Braised Short Ribs (as described, served with risotto), Braised Beef and Tortelloni (as described), Ravioli di Portabello (if you can't eat onions, request they omit the green onions before serving), and Bruschetta (on the appetizer menu but also makes a nice light meal, especially when paired with a salad).

We didn't get dessert on this trip because we were quite full.  And we didn't get wine this time because of the margarita, and The Lovely Spouse's martini. The wine list is alright.  You won't find the best of the best at an Olive Garden but there's a good selection to accompany the menu items featured. And the prices are decent.

Speaking of prices, Olive Garden now has a 2 for $25 special.  Select items from a limited menu and 2 people can eat a full meal for $25, not including tips and drinks. Judging by the commercial most of the entree selections will be the pastas.

Will we be back to Olive Garden?  Well, yea.  The service is almost always very good.  The food is pretty consistent and there are healthy options available.  The prices are good, in addition to usually making 2 meals out of each entree.  This isn't where we go for a fine dining experience, but more of a place we can usually agree on.

Haters will continue to hate on Olive Garden.  And I'll continue to find that perplexing.  Along with the fact that you really can't find olives outside of the salads at Olive Garden.  I can haz antipasto, plz?

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