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?

25 comments

  1. Oy, the Olive Garden – dined there once and only once as the salt content of the food – the salad dressing alone! – was so high that even I, a salt fan, complained.

    And if you could get a birthday cake a week out of these people, how dumb are they?

  2. If you want a really good laugh, go to the Olive Garden’s website (www.olivegarden.com, of course). They’re sponsoring a sweepstakes for an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Tuscany…to their Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where all their “chefs” are trained. Try answering the four complex and difficult questions that you need in order to be eligible for this sweepstakes. Hey, I’m not picky. I’ll take a plane ticket to Tuscany any time…

  3. I appreciate your repulsion/attraction to the olive garden. Repulsion/attraction with food, amongst other things, can be a wonderful thing.

    I’ve never been to the Olive Garden, but I have the same warm regards to any casserole my mother makes with Cambelle’s Creamy Mushroom Soup. WT? Mega-chains? Who cares! That is the nature of comfort food…

  4. They do indeed have instructions on the wall. And photos of what the food is supposed to look like. And all the “Chefs” are highschool kids trying to make a buck. The pasta is precooked in deep fryers filled with water.

    At the same time, Unlimited bread!

    How do I know? The husband used to work there.

  5. Your mention of dumplings made me think of this restaurant but I can’t remember the name of it…you’ve got to go (if you haven’t already) to the little place in Chinatown that makes the inside out dumplings. Not really inside-out, I guess, but they are dumplings filled with the best broth and I’m pretty sure they are the only place that makes them that way. If you haven’t already been or can’t find out where it is I can track down the name of it…it should definitely be a mention on your fabulous site!

  6. Olive Garden is a guilty pleasure for me. Sure, its a far cry from authentic, but hell I couldn’t pass up their garlic breadsticks (which are doused in margarine and canned garlic btw) and seafood alfredo even if I wanted to. Like you, its a gateway back to my childhood.

  7. ugh, Olive Garden. It never failes that once a year I’ll get dragged there. sure, it’s unlimited breadsticks and salad but it’s terrible, low quality stuff. It’s like someone selling free dirt for $2.95. Sure, it’s FREE but do you really want it? The breadsticks especially have the most hydrogenated fat taste ever (margerine I presume) and I have never, ever, EVER had paste there which wasn’t overcooked to mush. :P Even Magiannos is a step up.

  8. But lest anyone think I am too much of a spoiled brat, I have my own crap-food guilty pleasures. I just *love* subway sandwiches– even though they’re nothing special– because I love the bread. And it’s just air-filled, nutrition void, white bread. Go figure.

  9. i think folks have hit the nail on the head — one man’s corporate slop is another’s comfort food. the “nexus between desire and fulfillment” — great phrase, AG! — can be bridged with foie gras or with hot dogs, depending on context. even if one had the $$$ to eat at Per Se every night, or the time to shop and cook organically at home, almost any American today has a processed food close to their heart, and sometimes that’s just the only thing that will satisfy. In my case, it’s Velveeta mac & cheese — even though it’s barely digestible these days, god i’m old.

  10. I think the bit about just going to Babbo instead and getting some pasta for the $22 is a bit ridiculous, considering that normal people have to reserve a table there 30 days in advance.

  11. But would The Amateur Gourmet, winner of the Best Funny Food Blog, really need a reservation? I think not.

  12. I’m new to the blog thing but I knew you were the funniest thing on it before they gave you an award. molto congrats. I am a life-long new yorker and you write with a fabulous n.y. voice. thanks for the laughs. I’ve been sick for new year and reading you is just the medicine I needed. p.s. I don’t know what a URL is so I hope you get this, Mazel Tov

  13. Hey AG,

    ‘Member that time you. Lisa, Jordan and I went to the Olive Garden in ATL and they sat us in a section where no one was working? Ah, well done, Olive Garden.

    love,jenni

  14. I was a server at the OG in high school. Our birthday song was different!

    Buena, festa, what a joyous day;

    Life’s good forture is sure to come your way;

    Come on sit back and just relax and fill your plate the Italian waaaaay;

    We’re so glad you came to celebrate with us today!

  15. I’ve been looking for the sweepstakes page on the olivegarden.com site. Where is it? I too, would take a free trip to Tuscany….

  16. I had dinner at the Olive Garden last evening and they told me to go to the website to see how I could win a trip to Italy. I cannot find it. Please advise.

  17. Olive Garden is my favorite restaurant. I’m only in the 7th grade and we publish articles on our weekly school newspaper. I had to do a review on something so I chose OG and (to the pint)do any of y’all know the Olive Garden birhtday song?

    *by the way, ma’m, the website is olivegarden.com. It pops up as soon you tell them where the nearest OG is.

    Thanks

  18. have eaten at olive garden in branson,mo. got very good service and food was great. waitress asked if we were going to a show we said yes, we were served in timely fashion and made our show with time to spare.

  19. Who knows if this thread is still active, but here goes:

    I REALLY hate how the Olive Garden advertises that their chefs go to Italy to learn cooking. That may be true, but I don’t believe they have chefs at their restaurants; they have cooks. I bet you can find many Olive Garden restaurants where no one on staff has ever even been to Italy. The chefs probably create the recipies in some corporate office. The food is exactly the same at each Olive Garden restaurant, so clearly there are not chefs creating or even cooking these dishes at the restaurant. Why would they need them? If they do have chefs then I guess Burger King has chefs too.

    Several years ago I learned that their food is pretty much frozen or prepackaged. Someone in my party asked for a pasta primavera (when they used to offer this)without onions or mushrooms or something like that and the waitress told us it was impossible since the vegetables came frozen together. Really – the mark-up on this food is amazing. Cook the pasta, unfreeze and heat the remaining ingrediants and tah dah!

  20. I worked for The Olive Garden for a bit, and came across more disappointments than surprises in regards to their quality standards. Most of the food is, in fact, delivered frozen, and simply thawed to serve. On the flip side, each restaurant does employ a “master chef”, who is sent to Tuscany for an eight-week training course in preparing The Olive Garden’s signature dishes. This concept is funny to me, considering the information learned isn’t of much use later if all you are doing is supervising the thawing process of 10 line cooks. Sad….still, as the author reminded me, OG will always be a fond memory in my childhood. It was my restaurant of choice each birthday, all the way through 16 or 17. Life was simpler then…I guess my pallette was, as well.

  21. OK, Olive garden to authentic italian food is like chinese restaurants compared to real chinese. Of course it’s “Americanized” with the complimentary breadsticks and salad. True Italians don’t eat huge bowls of pasta with meatballs or those awful Olive Garden breadsticks. We rub fresh cloves of garlic on our focaccia and ciabatta’s, drizzled in EVOO…

    Olive Garden DOES give scholarships to the few and lucky who get sent off to Italy to learn culinary skills.

    Olive Garden is a good Italian restaurant for mediacre authentic Italian food. Just like the chinese and mexican chains (don’t even get me started on Chi-Chi’s)…

    I think O.G. is overpriced, considering I can make most of the dishes on the menu for 1/2 the price!

  22. OK, Olive garden to authentic italian food is like chinese restaurants compared to real chinese. Of course it’s “Americanized” with the complimentary breadsticks and salad. True Italians don’t eat huge bowls of pasta with meatballs or those awful Olive Garden breadsticks. We rub fresh cloves of garlic on our focaccia and ciabatta’s, drizzled in EVOO…

    Olive Garden DOES give scholarships to the few and lucky who get sent off to Italy to learn culinary skills.

    Olive Garden is a good Italian restaurant for mediacre authentic Italian food. Just like the chinese and mexican chains (don’t even get me started on Chi-Chi’s)…

    I think O.G. is overpriced, considering I can make most of the dishes on the menu for 1/2 the price!

  23. I’d have no problem with The Olive Garden if they simply just didn’t pretend to be something they’re not. If they said they’re an Italian “themed” restaurant, that would be fine. The reason they’re the laughing stock of the restaurant business [if you don’t believe this, talk to a food server or line cook in a middle to upper scale resataurant and everyday jokes and ribs about someone who’s not up to snuff and should go back to “working at Olive Garden” are as common as anything] is because of these recent preposterous claims about little villas in Tuscany where the recipes for Olive Garden entrees originate from old, stumped over, Italian grandmothers. Or how about the grandfather from Italy who became a naturalized U.S. citizen and picked the Olive Garden to celebrate, ostensibly because their food reminded him of the food of his youth, in the mountains and villages of Tuscany. The truth? I worked at one, regrettably, when I was 19, and your old world recipes are thawed out by 20 year olds who can’t wait to get done their shift so they can go to the local bar. I also loved the training sessions before one could work there. CIA agents and Navy Seals go through less training. The best part was how one of the corporate stuffed shirts described “Hospitaliano” like it was some energy force, like a seperate entity, not unlike how Obi Wan described the “force” to Luke in Star Wars.

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