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Olive Garden

January 25, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
Culinary Institute of Tuscany

Culinary Institute of Tuscany

The Weekend Journal section of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article by their restaurant writer Raymond Sokolov comparing Olive Garden to Spiaggia (famed Chicago Italian restaurant in the news lately as one of Barack Obama’s favorites). Just the idea of such an article delighted me. Massively popular national chain restaurant typically found by suburban malls versus fancy, urban stand-alone restaurant in one of the great restaurant cities of the country. The article didn’t go into the issues as deeply as I would have wished, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Olive Garden is one of the six national chains owned by Darden Restaurants. (Its siblings are Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, The Capital Grille, and Seasons 52.) Spiaggia, as it turns out, is part of a national company of a different sort, Levy Restaurants. The Levys, as far as I can tell, started with a family deli in Chicago, but expanded to the point where they now own restaurants in Chicago and a few other cities, but provide food at sports sites all over the country (baseball stadiums, football stadiums, basketball arenas, car racetracks). Though owned by a now-huge restaurant and catering company, Spiaggia is the vision of a single chef, Tony Mantuano, whom Larry Levy found in 1980 and asked to create the restaurant. (More details at the Spiaggia website.)

Olive Garden and Red Lobster have become on-going jokes in our family. We’re happy to eat at them. We even have some admiration for them. But we have trouble taking them seriously.

We first ate at Olive Garden in Spokane many years ago, when we were visiting Gail’s brother. I had no idea at the time that it was part of a national chain, and I actually liked our dinner, not imagining that Spokane had such a good restaurant. And of course this is one of the virtues of any great national chain. You can be confident, no matter where you are, that when you go to one you will be served food that doesn’t dip below a reasonable standard of quality. It may not rise too high either, and the decor will be so familiar that you’ll have no sense of having traveled anywhere, but that’s another matter. As it turns out, another of Gail’s brother’s favorite restaurants at the time was Red Lobster, and when he was over here in Seattle one year around the time of his birthday, we all drove 25 miles down to Federal Way to go to one for his birthday dinner.

I knew Red Lobster was a chain, but still hadn’t figured out that Olive Garden was and that they were siblings. It was only in 1997, when we were in Colorado, that Gail helped me make the connection. After three days in Estes Park by Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed east through the most beautiful canyon (Big Thompson Canyon I see on the map) to Loveland, and then, rather than heading south to Denver, our initial plan, we headed north the short distance to Fort Collins. The road we took was one of those roads filled with malls and chain stores, and just a short distance from each other was a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden. Gosh, that’s just like how there are two of them side by side up in Lynnwood, just north of Seattle, with a shared parking lot. Gail explained that they are jointly owned and tend to appear in pairs. Aha! Well, we didn’t actually stop at them. We continued on to Fort Collins and had a great lunch at some brew pub downtown. (And then we went over to the Colorado State campus, wandered around, dropped in at the Math department, and managed to catch my old graduate school friend Rick, who had just started to serve as acting department chair that day. He would go on to be chair and then dean of physical sciences. He suggested we come over to the house for dinner. To kill time, we headed over to the giant Anheuser Busch brewery north of town for their tour, then we joined Rick and Jeanne — another grad school friend — and their three children for dinner, including Rick’s homemade limoncello. A great day. Except that we arrived at our hotel in Denver way late and got the absolute only room left, a bizarre, narrow two-room suite behind the elevator bank, the first room shaped more like a corridor and squeezed between the exterior wall and the elevators, with a cot for Joel. We moved the next day. In fact, we moved three times, finally being given a lovely corner suite. But I’m straying from our topic. It’s just that I can’t think of Olive Garden without thinking of this.)

At some point we decided Red Lobster’s quality, that minimum standard we could always count on, was too low, and we stopped eating there. (And anyway, why on earth would one eat fish and seafood at a national chain in the Seattle area?) We went back for the first time in years just last month to celebrate Gail’s sister’s birthday, and I have to say, it was much better than we remembered. We had a pretty good dinner. As for Olive Garden, we last ate there over a year ago when Gail’s brother was over, as was his daughter’s family, so we all met up at the Lynnwood Olive Garden for their bottomless salads and their pasta. About 15 of us. Again, I was happy. I had some carbonara dish. In fact, it might just have been the chicken carbonara, which Raymond Sokolov discusses in his Olive Garden review.

As you may know, Olive Garden relies on its Culinary Institute of Tuscany to develop creative new dishes. This isn’t a joke. They do have such an institute. In Tuscany. In Italy. And there is a symbol to look for on the menu “to enjoy specialties inspired by our Culinary Institute of Tuscany.” Like chicken carbonara. Sokolov:

But the featured dishes, the ones they concoct at their Culinary Institute of Tuscany after an “ideation” tour of the Italian countryside, reminded us of those all-in “garbage” pizzas we gobbled down in college.

Take the new “chicken carbonara” on the current menu. Olive Garden is perfectly well aware that the traditional pasta alla carbonara doesn’t have any chicken in it (or shrimp, another featured option). It describes the famous authentic dish — noodles, unsmoked bacon (pancetta), egg and cheese — on its Web site. Adding the chicken spoils the pure alchemy of the original recipe. The chicken steals the limelight from the underlying dish.

I felt the same way about Olive Garden’s chimerical “steak gorgonzola-Alfredo” — big slabs of steak smothering the pasta standard on whose coattails this creation was riding to commercial success.

But I have nothing against commercial success. My discontent here was an aesthetic issue. And by the end of lunch I was asking myself why I rejected these innovations and swooned for the much more theatrical novelties on the menu at the elegant neo-Italian restaurant Spiaggia in Chicago.

As for Spiaggia, we were hoping to eat there on our trip to Chicago in November, but we didn’t have an evening when we could enjoy a leisurely dinner, at least not after I booked tickets for the Lang Lang concert at the Symphony Center the Saturday night we were there. Out went dinner at Spiaggia, or at Alinea. Here’s more from Sokolov:

I think I would love Spiaggia just as much if it weren’t sited brilliantly opposite Lake Michigan, where Michigan Avenue’s retail heaven merges into elegant Lake Shore Drive. I had my reservation there long before I heard that the Obamas would celebrate their anniversary eating entrées from Spiaggia’s massive wood-burning stove. And I certainly didn’t know that Spiaggia was just one of many fine-dining restaurants run by Levy Restaurants, which will cater the coming Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., with a specially created menu of regional dishes such as Florida stone crab claws with lemon aioli.

In fact, I think it makes for a better comparison with hypercorporate Olive Garden that the Levy company started with a local deli in Chicago and now feeds sports fans across the country, while doing business as a division of the North American subdivision of U.K.-based Compass Group, a $20.2 billion concern as of 2007.

Yes, Spiaggia commands our allegiance with its luxury setting, service and raw materials. Perhaps it’s impossible to factor out all the special ingredients — the black truffle, the handcrafted pasta, the wild arugula from the chef’s garden — and the rest of Spiaggia’s wow-ness that sends the cost of main courses over the $40 mark. But if we try to confine this discussion to the basic style, concept and execution of the food at Spiaggia and Olive Garden, we immediately get lost in the dark wood of subjectivity.

Why do I think steak gorgonzola-Alfredo is a freak show, when I go ape at the thought of Spiaggia’s baroque menu? Items vary but consider this not-untypical fantasia: roasted cod with baccalà fritters, puntarelle and quail egg with cured sardines. To produce this, chef Tony Mantuano has to juggle several delicate acts at once, roasting the cod in his hard-to-regulate wood oven, frying the salt-cod (baccalà) so the fritters come out crisp just when the fresh cod is ready to go on the plate with the bitter greens (puntarelle) and the third treatment of fish (cured sardines). Or you could order his idea of surf and turf: wood-roasted diver scallops with black trumpet mushrooms and crispy pagliolaia (dewlap, the tasty flap of beef that hangs from the animal’s neck, a close cousin of modish beef cheeks). The earthier, rustic ingredients are there to set off the refinement of the fresh cod and scallops, without a blur, visually or on the palate. Whereas the entire Olive Garden dish is like a pile-up at the line of scrimmage after a failed run.

Just as you can’t tell which team has the football, you don’t know whether to focus on the big pieces of meat or the sharp cheese or the pasta or the Alfredo sauce (a sauce, by the way, that descends, like a bastard child, from the cheese-butter-cream bath — prepared on the spot for fettucine by Alfredo himself in Rome, with a gold fork if memory serves, when I was a wandering student). It has been vulgarized (and even bottled) into a dead mixture with no real roots in Italian cooking).

Somewhere between these two extremes is authentic Italian cuisine, the food you get in hundreds of deft, unpretentious Italian restaurants in Italy and in this country. Unfortunately, in a food world smitten with novelty, second-raters pander to a hunger for the new, while only a few serious kitchen talents have the gift to invent something worth putting in your mouth.

Um, you know, perhaps I should be embarrassed to say this, but I might just prefer chicken carbonara to those scallops with the flap of beef that hangs from the animal’s neck.

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Coming attraction: my thoughts on another national chain, P. F. Chang’s China Bistro.

Categories: Food, Restaurants
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