Hospitaliano and Childhood: Dinner at The Olive Garden

“From the pasta we make

To the bread that we bake

we’re wishing you an Olive Garden birthday.

We hope you will remember

this joyous day forever

we’re wishing you an Olive Garden birthday.”

– old Olive Garden birthday song, as remembered from my childhood.

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Despite the order of the title, we begin with childhood. A large bulk of my childhood was spent at The Olive Garden. Beginning in the year 1990, the year my family moved to Florida from New York, we dined almost weekly at The Olive Garden. We lived first with my great-grandmother in Sunrise Lakes and ate at the Olive Garden there. We found this to be a great discovery. Endless breadsticks and salad! Pasta! Sauce! Dessert! What more could you want in a restaurant?

Then we moved north to Boca Raton–renting a house in Boca Point—and eating just down the road at the Boca Raton Olive Garden. The same bread and salad! The same pasta! Sauce! And as for dessert we made a discovery: tell them it’s your birthday and get a free cake. Each week we’d have another birthday and another cake. Our refrigerator was filled with Olive Garden birthday cakes. (Hence my memorization of the Olive Garden birthday song at the top of this post).

My earliest Olive Garden memories are with my grandmother. Before we moved to New York, I flew alone to meet my grandmother and great-grandmother in Florida. That was the first time we ever ate at an Olive Garden. We loved it. It fit nicely into my grandmother’s idiom of eating-out establishments: The Ponderosa, Sizzler. Places that gave you bang for your buck. And Olive Garden did just that: it’s all about value.

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Fast forward 14 years or so and you’ll reach the same conclusion: it’s still all about value. My friends love The Olive Garden for just that reason. It’s so much food for so little. Well not so little anymore: my meal cost $16. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

On Thursday night Alex, Lisa, Liz and I were looking for a pre-movie dining establishment near where we would go see “The Life Aquatic” (the most disappointing movie I’ve seen all year–that year being 2004). The Olive Garden was mentioned and everyone grew excited. Everyone, that is, except for me: my mind was in conflict. How could I, a self-professed amateur gourmet, grow excited about The Olive Garden? Was this not a huge step backwards? I put a smile on my face and nodded my head and followed the group. Meanwhile, my brain attempted to sort things out.

What’s wrong with eating at The Olive Garden? Let’s put aside all that political crap: I’m not interested in Olive Garden’s corporate policy or its bread stick methodology. Instead, I’m interested in Epicurian values. What makes The Olive Garden less than worthy?

Here’s the argument that makes the most sense to me: good dining (which doesn’t necessarily mean fine dining) has two major components: (1) fresh, excellent ingredients (2) prepared with expertise and/or flair. I think this definition embraces both a 4-star meal at Jean-Georges and a carefully rendered dumpling in Chinatown. It’s about freshness and skill.

Olive Garden has neither though their website begs to differ. Check it out—under “Our Passion” and “Italian Essentials” we learn that “No matter where you are in Italy, simple, fresh ingredients from the land are the most important part of the recipe. The same is true at Olive Garden.” It goes on to say that:

“All of our soups, including Pasta e Fagioli, Minestrone and Zuppa Tuscana, are prepared from scratch every morning.

All of our sauces, including Marinara and Alfredo, are prepared fresh every day.

All of our Lasagnas are prepared daily and served with freshly grated cheese.”

All of this under the heading “Freshness.”

Wait a second. Preparing everything from scratch isn’t an argument that your ingredients are fresh–it’s an argument that you prepare everything from scratch. I think it’s funny that they use the phrase “fresh ingredients from the land.” I think that hits the nail on the head regarding the point I’m trying to make: how many steps is the journey from the land to your plate at The Olive Garden? My guess is many many steps. And that the source isn’t anywhere you’d want to go near. Factory farming comes to mind, though I have no evidence to back that up.

As for preparation, I’m not sure what Olive Garden chefs do in an Olive Garden kitchen. I have a feeling there are instructions on the wall. I have a feeling that an Olive Garden chef, if handed a bag of flour, eggs and a pasta maker, might wet their pants. I have a feeling that an Olive Garden chef isn’t much of a chef at all–the same way that someone who makes a mix tape isn’t really a musician.

But maybe I’m being a snob.

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“You’re being a snob,” Lisa would say regarding the above. Lisa, Liz and Alex love The Olive Garden. They don’t think about it–they just do. Look how happy they are with their bottomless salad and breadsticks:

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I sat there with them and ate gladly. The breadsticks tasted fine and so did the salad. They tasted familiar in a very comforting way. And familiarity is a virtue when it comes to Italian cooking. Even Marcella Hazan says so in the introduction to her book (purchased for me by Brian W.)–she calls familiarity “that essential attribute of the civilized life.” I also think of Alice Walker’s book title: “The Temple of My Familiar.”

And it is perhaps the virtue of familiarity that trumps the freshness and skill touted above. Familiarity is a powerful weapon: it’s what keeps the majority of people who eat the same foods for the entirety of their lives from trying anything new. But it’s also what made this chicken parmesan so yummy:

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It tasted like my childhood. Every bite tasted the way I anticipated it would—there was a nexus between desire and fulfillment. I got exactly what I wanted. How can you beat that?

Well there’s food that challenges and surprises. Olive Garden doesn’t do that. Also, even though it seems like a value getting all that food, it still ended up costing me around $22. For that much I could go 10 blocks south to Babbo and have something extraordinary. True it wouldn’t be as much–maybe just a bowl of pasta–but what’s more valuable: a bowl of earth-shattering pasta or pounds and pounds of crap that merely hits the spot? (Cue Woody Allen: “The food here is terrible…and such small portions!”)

Thinking too much about food can be harmful. There is a place in our collective palates for The Olive Garden. Clearly that’s the case: there was a 45 minute wait for our table. People love The Olive Garden. I loved The Olive Garden in my childhood. My friends love it now. And maybe I love it a little too. Just don’t tell anyone, ok?

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