Olive Garden, Through The Eyes of Italy
July 21, 2004 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Italian cooking expert Marcella Hazan (featured on the cover of this month's Saveur) eats at The Olive Garden. "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.
posted by adrober (79 comments total)

I wish she had tried the eggplant parmesan. I wonder if the food available in Little Italy, in NYC comes close to being authentic. I can see why Olive Garden Americanized the food, they've got a business to run on a big scale.
posted by riffola at 9:23 AM on July 21, 2004

Hazan's books are brilliant.

While we're name-checking celebrity chefs and talking about where to get authentic Italian food in NYC, my boyfriend and I had a mind-blowing meal atBabbo last week, Mario Batali's place in the Village. The pairing of the goose-liver ravioli and the off-menu glass of vin santo suggested by the sommelier was one of the most outrageously delicious things I've ever eaten. At its best, Italian food is an alchemy that employs very few ingredients to achieve extremely vivid, essentialized flavors, and Babbo is the real deal, albeit an expensive one.

Tip: Ask for a table in the upstairs room. The downstairs is steerage for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
posted by digaman at 9:50 AM on July 21, 2004

she'd really hate spaghettio's then!
posted by billybobtoo at 9:51 AM on July 21, 2004

This is even funnier if you know Hazan's recipes, which sometimes call for befriending a butcher over a long period of time, so that he'll accept your request for a particularly inconvenient cut of meat, without which said recipe will not be quite as good.

One of the recipes in Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking involves purchasing a whole chicken and performing a lengthy surgical procedure upon it that extracts the skeleton, but leaves the meat intact. Then you stuff the shapeless chicken with all kinds of good things, and cook it. It looks excellent, but I haven't worked up the nerve yet to try it.
posted by Prospero at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2004

Does it make sense to actually criticize Olive Garden along these lines? They don't market themselves as fine cuisine; they're clearly placing themselves in the "So you don't want to cook tonight..." camp, if higher up in it than, say, Denny's.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:55 AM on July 21, 2004

ROU - I thought that at first too. But then I thought about all of those ads where the family brings the grandmother from the "old country" to the Olive Garden for a taste of home, or where the big Italian family chooses Olive Garden to have their dinners. I think that claim of authentic Italian cuisine leaves them wide open to this type of criticism.
posted by synapse at 9:59 AM on July 21, 2004

In related news, Budweiser is not really the king of beers and Michael Jackson is not really the king of pop. In subtext, the American consumer is a low-brow moron.

Honestly, I really wonder about editors who run these type of articles.
posted by keswick at 9:59 AM on July 21, 2004

the unfortunate thing about Olive Garden and the ilk is that in some places, that's the only option. Driving down I81 to visit relatives, the only option in some of those out of the way places of my state (and even some of the suburban areas around here) is to go to one of those mega-food-chains like Outback or Olive Garden.

Hell, not too long ago, the residents of Richmond, VA voted Red Lobster as the best restaurant in town.
posted by crunchland at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2004

I'll never forget going to a restaurant called Memphis, in Helsinki, that advertised itself as serving "typical American cuisine" -- such as, uhm, chicken baked in Coca-Cola.
posted by digaman at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2004

Chef thinks that Olive Garden is bland and kinda sucky. Film at Eleven.
posted by zpousman at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2004

Olive Garden must "guide and teach" its customers, she says, delighting them with surprises rather than giving in to the tried-and-true.

Yup, that's the recipe for success in middle America. Is Marcella perhaps a bit naive?
posted by milovoo at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2004

Yeah, really... that mass-market 'ethnic' restaurants tend to be very bland an unauthentic is not exactly a startling reveleation to anyone who's ever eaten outside a strip mall.

The article was mildly amusing, if only for the complete fish-out-of-water cultural snobbery of it -- which is about all such stories are. But then, even for mass-market restaurants, I've never understood why people love OG so much. I'd much rather go to Chilis. They tend to be cheaper and have better food.

I guess it's the HOSPITALIANO!
posted by jammer at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2004

I laugh when I think that Red Lobster was considered "eating out at a fancy restaraunt" back home (rural Oklahoma).
posted by mrbill at 10:06 AM on July 21, 2004

While we're name-checking celebrity chefs

While we're name-dropping celebrity chefs... I ate at Armandino Batali's (that's Mario's dad) place, Salumi, in Seattle last year. I have never had a better sandwich. Did you know he cures his own meats?

I'd be curious to know if Babbo is really Mario's restaurant, or if he's the celebrity chef they list on the menu to have a "name" to advertise. Les Alles is supposedly Anthony Bourdain's restaurant, except he doesn't work there; he writes books. Not that I'm complaining about the food, because Les Alles has tremendous micro-ravioli and delicious Mergez sausages.
posted by rocketman at 10:08 AM on July 21, 2004

"I must console myself," Marcella says. She orders a Jack Daniel's.


Also, they liked 2 out of the 5 dishes, so...
posted by gwint at 10:09 AM on July 21, 2004

digaman: have you not seen Alton Brown's dr. pepper turkey?
posted by mrbill at 10:11 AM on July 21, 2004

Oh, Cheers blueshammer. I'd almost forgotten how much I miss Ironminds.
posted by dmt at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2004

I'm willing to bet the guys from Iron Chef would scoff at a Pu Pu Platter from Dragon Garden. That doesn't mean it doesn't taste really good, when what you want is a Pu Pu Platter.

When I want an decent Italian meal I'll go into Boston's North End. I'll pay for it too. If all I have is a strip mall near me and I want a somewhat cheap Italian-style meal without a lot of overhead and hassle, I'll check out an Olive Garden. I don't think anyone with access to both would ever confuse the two.
posted by bondcliff at 10:18 AM on July 21, 2004

I thought it was a fun article for the reason jammer states. OG's menus are constrained by logistics, economies of scale; they have to have dishes that can be reproduced consistently in hundreds of restaurants in different geographical areas and with reliable supplies, with the kind of staff you can get to work in a chain restaurants. It probably isn't possible to do much better. I'm actually fairly impressed with the quality of chain restaurant food. Though I still hate going to them, sometimes when you're traveling there isn't any choice; there are cities in America that have very few restarants at all that aren't chains.

keswick, I very much doubt that USA Today, of all newspapers, is supplying the subtext "American consumers are low-grade morons". You appear to have come up with that interpretation all by yourself. The point of the article is to deflate Olive Garden's pretentious pose.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:22 AM on July 21, 2004

What I liked about the article wasn't that she predictably ragged on the dishes that failed, but that she liked the soup (even though it was not truly Tuscan) and seemed to really like the pork -- she was surprised but impressed by that one. So this was more than a simple "snob chef disses the taste of the heartland" story.

Of course, The Olive Garden went tits-up in Canada a few years ago, so I'll probably never get to try that pork ...
posted by maudlin at 10:22 AM on July 21, 2004

Hey, don't knock coca-cola chicken. I have made it at home more than once. The beverage is really quite a tenderizer.
posted by konolia at 10:27 AM on July 21, 2004

Hell, not too long ago, the residents of Richmond, VA voted Red Lobster as the best restaurant in town.

They did? Damn, time to move...
posted by armage at 10:44 AM on July 21, 2004

What do you except her to say - no one really thinks it’s authentic “Italian.”
What's wrong with Italian cooking in America?
Does anyone remember their slogan when they first opened up. Endless bread and a bottomless salad bowl. That statement was why people suggested the place to me when asking, “what makes this place special.” Non-chain restaurants are your better places. The times I've gove - felt I was overcharged for what the meal consisted of.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:47 AM on July 21, 2004

"Honestly, I really wonder about editors who run these type of articles."

It's USA Today?
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:47 AM on July 21, 2004

Olive Garden is good for two things only: the all-you-can-eat soup and salad. The dressing is too vinegary, but for some reason it's completely addictive. We have been known to drive 45 mins each way when the craving got too strong. And the Zuppa di Toscana that they mentioned in the article is absolutely yummy. Come on, how many chain restaurants use kale for anything other than garnish?

The rest of the menu? Complete crap, and as the article said, certainly not 'authentic Italian'. But really, did anyone expect it to be?
posted by widdershins at 11:04 AM on July 21, 2004

For once, I'm gonna have to side with the food snobs. Olive Garden sucks balls. Maybe it's because of my Italian ancestry makes me biased but there you have it.

I used to work half a block from an Olive Garden, and one day for a change of pace from Wendy's or McD's I gave it a shot. I had the soup the author mentions, which admittedly was OK, and the canneloni. After I was done I felt like I had eaten a pile of lead. An hour later I was sicker than shit.

The Olive Garden must do well in communities where no Italian has ever been seen, because in communities large and small with Italian populations, there's plenty of cheap Italian and Italian-American food available. Hell, Pizza Huts are almost unknown in NYC, because there's good authentic pizzerias on almost every block. But then again in the northeast, it's nigh impossible (outside of New York) to get a decent pulled pork BBQ sandwich, so everyplace has it's strengths.

The problem with Olive Garden (and Red Lobster too, although they somewhat redeem themselves with the cheese biscuits) is not that they're chain restaurants or that they're downscale, but the pretensions of authenticity and how poorly they fail to reach it.

And it's not an attack on the American consumer, keswick. It's more an attack on Olive Garden for selling themselves as authentic Italian to those who wouldn't have much of an opportunity to try the real thing.

Hell, not too long ago, the residents of Richmond, VA voted Red Lobster as the best restaurant in town.

When I lived in Miami, the local paper named Pizza Hut the best pizzeria. It's one of the reasons I had to claw my way back to New York. BUt they had great cuban sandwiches
posted by jonmc at 11:04 AM on July 21, 2004

Hell, not too long ago, the residents of Richmond, VA voted Red Lobster as the best restaurant in town.

Of course we did. We didn't want any damn Yankee out-of-towners finding out where the good restaurants are.
posted by junkbox at 11:23 AM on July 21, 2004

Having known several Italians, it seems that the thing they hate most about American "italian" restaurants is that the reheat the pasta instead of cooking it fresh. Ms Hazan commented on it every time. They're really not into any idea of fast food, (whether MacD or OG) and would rather wait and get fresh food.

Of course, the Indians I know seem to feel that way about Indian restaurants.
posted by Red58 at 11:23 AM on July 21, 2004

Look - as bad as the Olive Garden it's not "Vinnie Testa's".

I went there a few weeks ago and the smarmy, obnoxious waiter boasted of how the fried calamari dish my wife ordered was cooked in "pure, 100% olive oil" .


I said that night, as I picked at the chunks of goo (which might have been giant fried slugs for all I could tell) they called Calamari that were floating in a yellowish pool of grease - which my wife refused to eat - I said, "Well, they're lying about the olive oil. This has got to be butter. Olive oil doesn't taste like this! This tastes like hypersaturated fat. I can taste that as soon as it hits the tip of my tongue."

Next morning, when I felt like my body had been squished through a garlic press that hadn't beern cleaned in about a decade and then pounded with a dirt meat-tenderizer, I realized the awful truth.

The bastards had, in my opinion, served us a meal cooked in what was probably closest to the fake butter usually drenched over popcorn, but probably rancid, as well, for the effect it had on my body.

Just saying - there's bad, and then there's horrible.
posted by troutfishing at 11:30 AM on July 21, 2004

jonmc: i don't think article is a direct attack on the american consumer per se, but i think articles like these exist on some level so people can feel smug about how they have so much better taste than the unwashed masses who eat at Olive Garden.

That said, Olive Garden is overpriced and nasty. I support the local authentic restauarants, but i'm not under the misguided impression it makes me superior than those who eat Olive Garden. Taste, after all, is subjective.
posted by keswick at 11:42 AM on July 21, 2004

To answer riffola's question way up in the thread, the food in Little Italy is almost uniformly horrible. It's there to cater to tourists and the occasional suburban famiy in from Jersey or Long Island. There are still a few good shops down there, and there may be a good restaurant tucked away somewhere, but it seems that most of what was good there left long ago.

That said, there is such a thing as good Italian-American food, just as there are lots of interesting cuisines up and down the boot and in Sicily. From what I can gather from their commercials, though, OG has nothing to do with anything recognizably Italian except for their use of pasta and (maybe) olive oil.

But the worst thing is "Hospitaliano." I got a button with that slogan as a gag gift one time...I shudder to think of what my friend had to go through to get it.
posted by lackutrol at 11:52 AM on July 21, 2004

OG is nasty. Bread and salad are the only safe things to eat there. And dessert. Skip the pasta.
posted by agregoli at 11:57 AM on July 21, 2004

i think articles like these exist on some level so people can feel smug about how they have so much better taste than the unwashed masses who eat at Olive Garden.

keswick, I don't disagree that there's plenty of articles in all kinds of criticism with that kind of tone (witness Joe Queenan). You won't find a more passionate defender of the lowbrow than me. But I didn't get that here. I think that (like me), the authors are a bit mystified by OG's success. Of all the "exotic" European cuisines, Italian has to be one of the easiest to find. Even in like Omaha or someplace I imagine you could get a decent plate of pasta somewhere.

the food in Little Italy is almost uniformly horrible.

well, there's only a couple blocks of Little Italy left at this point. Most of the good mom & pop italian joints are out in the boroughs, or Jersey and Long Island, ironically, since that's where the neighborhoods former residents went. Lombardi's is still down on Spring Street for a great pie, though.
posted by jonmc at 12:00 PM on July 21, 2004

Caffe Macaroni on Columbus in San Francisco. I've been there approximately one million times and never had a bad meal. Their osso buco is just celestial. And there was this one time we were sitting outside and they brought us a carafe of wine with a peach in it, and when we'd finished the wine they sliced up the peach and we ate it. My God, that was the best peach ever.

And it's cheap as chips.
posted by rdc at 12:01 PM on July 21, 2004

troutfishing, I totally agree with you about Vinny Testa's (Vinny T's of Boston, as they now call themselves).

My general complaints about the Italian-American restaurants I've been to are: too much garlic, too much cheese, flaccid overcooked pasta and gut-busting portion sizes. I've eaten 5-course meals in restaurants in Italy that didn't leave me feeling full and sick, as one course at one of these places sometimes does.

I view eating out like going to a concert or a movie, as an experience in a certain span of time that I can leave when it's over and have good memories of afterwards. I really dislike lugging home the doggie bag from a restaurant and then eating from it for the next 2-3 days.
posted by initapplette at 12:02 PM on July 21, 2004

Has anyone ever played Cheese Chicken? Here are the instructions, which you can print out and take with you to The Olive Garden. Hospitaliano!
posted by iconomy at 12:04 PM on July 21, 2004

the real problem is that actual, good (not to mention high) quality Italian cuisine is all but impossible to achieve if you run a mass-market restaurant in the US. it'd be folly, businesswise. you just stick to easier-to-prepare, less subtle dishes that require easier to find things, dishes that are not exactly Italian but do look and sound a bit like Italian cuisine. all Italians who travel abroad, to the US especially, never cease to be amused by what passes for Italian dishes at "Italian" restaurants. sadly, the only good actual Italian food I ate in the US (and in the UK) I found in expensive places. which is a shame. and of course it's useless to have a culinary critic test the Olive Garden food. you don't ask Elvis Mitchell or Tony Lane to write a review of a McDonalds TV spot. or if you do don't be surprised if they say it sucks

oh, yeah, two of my favorite Italian restaurants are in London. funny huh.

"but i think articles like these exist on some level so people can feel smug about how they have so much better taste than the unwashed masses who eat at Olive Garden."

posted by matteo at 12:12 PM on July 21, 2004

I have nothing against the chains, and my experiences at Outback, Chili's, Abblebee's, O'Charley's, Olive Garden, etc etc etc have, with a few rare exceptions, been generally pleasant.

But I prefer eating at locally owned shops for three reasons:

1. The ownership seems to genuinely appreciate you, and the staff gets to know you if you are a regular.

2. The quality is almost always better.

3. The chains are always so crowded.

Look at #2 carefully. I said the local shops were almost always better. That does NOT mean the chains are crap, it means the other is better.

That's what annoys me about things like this. Especially with food, people tend to think there is "Great" and then there is "Crap" and nothing in-between.

The vast majority of food I have out is in-between. I occasionally hit great, and I rarely hit crap.

The local providers sometimes hit great and almost never hit crap. The chains usually hit in-between, and also rarely hit crap.

We are blessed in most towns by having an extraordinary breadth of choices of quality food options.

For instance, I really enjoy Outback steaks if they are cooked properly. Sometimes your medium comes out right, sometimes it doesn't. But I'm not about to declare all of their output crap because an individual steak was a shade closer to well than I prefer.

But I hate the typical 1.5 hour wait to go to Outback. That really is the problem to me... they are TOO popular.

These people that are always intolerant of anything except culinary perfection must live an excruciating life of disappointment.

I've got other things to do in my life besides eat.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:21 PM on July 21, 2004

Food snob that I am, I *do* eat in chain restaurants -- but only when we need a place to go out with my 3-year-old daughter. Chain restauarants have the advantage of being relatively uniform, which appeals to her need to have things be the same, and there's not a one of them that doesn't have a kid's meal menu that won't have at least one item from her very limited range of acceptable foods. These places are also far more tolerant of the behavior of your average small child.

When there is babysitting to be had, you would not catch me dead in one, and once she is old enough to behave and eat something other than grilled cheese/hot dogs/chicken nuggets, it will be back to our preferred local bistros and the occasional high-swank boite for the whole family.

Meanwhile, I can usually manage to find at least one item on the menu that didn't go from the freezer to the microwave to my table (a steak, a salad, burgers, etc.), and so I have learned to compromise and accept the utility of chain joints.
posted by briank at 12:22 PM on July 21, 2004

iconomy, now that's comedy.

On topic, while there is a place for the bland, factory food that comes out of large chain restaurants, I almost never go to any of them. I live in a nieghborhood that has wonderful food options that are locally owned and serve excellent meals for reasonable prices. When I hear someone say "let's go to Olive Garden" it makes me shake my head in the same sort of sadness I feel when a friend gives me an email address that ends with ".aol"
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:29 PM on July 21, 2004

Portions are also a problem - chain restaurant portions are HUGE. If you go to a much nicer authentic restaurant, the food will be INCREDIBLE, and the portion will be a real portion, the food so good you feel full.
posted by agregoli at 12:29 PM on July 21, 2004

I counted, at quick glance, 6 comments she made that are NOT Olive Garden's (the corporation) fault but that of the person preparing the meal. Maybe they can't change their menu but than can sure as hell improve their methods.

This one lost me though: "Bertani's $110 bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella "is very good, respectable wine." "

$110? $110? That feeds what, a family of 6 (even if dad has three $5 beers) at OG. No meal at a restaurant without a chef can serve a bottle of $110 wine with a straight face, their food just doesn't deserve it.
posted by m@ at 12:32 PM on July 21, 2004

So I went with my good friend Lisa to Babbo a couple of months ago--this was our second time there--and while I kvelled over the food, she poked at her salad of bitter greens bitterly. I knew what was going on in her head. She would rather be eating an Olive Garden salad.

"Lisa!" I attempted, "Don't you realize how much better this is than the Olive Garden!"

This argument failed to compel her.

Even now, it seems like no matter how hard I might try to argue--resting on the laurels of history, culture and authenticity--Lisa will always think the Olive Garden salad tastes better. Maybe I do too.

That's what I like about this article---this matriarch of authentic Italian cooking doesn't dismiss the Olive Garden outright. She concedes that some of it tastes good. How can you argue with something that tastes good? I suppose you can't.
posted by adrober at 12:37 PM on July 21, 2004

chain restaurant portions are HUGE

This is why the thing chain restaurants are best for is pub-grub like wings and fried cheese and stuff like that. It's designed to be eaten with a group in large quantities and accompanied by lots of alcoholic beverages. For that Chili's, Outback and Bennigan's are pretty good (although TGIF sucks). When they try to branch out into ethnic cuisine or fine dining type stuff, they almost invariably fail.
posted by jonmc at 12:39 PM on July 21, 2004

Don't eat at the Olive Garden.

I haven't been to the Olive Garden in years. I don't care that they push hard on the wine, but I'm not a big fan of their "Hey, Eye-talians eat here! It must be authentic!" style of advertising.
posted by Jugwine at 12:40 PM on July 21, 2004

Actually, about the worst chain restaurant I can think of for bland, boring, disgusting food is Old Country Buffet, who cater mostly to the geriatric crowd whose taste buds died sometime back during the Great War.
posted by crunchland at 12:40 PM on July 21, 2004

[whisper]Every resturaunt in the world under $40/entree pre-cooks its pasta.[/whisper]
posted by ChasFile at 12:42 PM on July 21, 2004

I literally let out a guffaw at the thought of six people sitting around a table yelling "Hospitaliano!" and angrily pointing to the salad bowl. Thank you for that, iconomy.
posted by Ufez Jones at 12:46 PM on July 21, 2004

"Every resturaunt in the world under $40/entree pre-cooks its pasta"

not in Italy, no. I can testify
posted by matteo at 12:48 PM on July 21, 2004

communities where no Italian has ever been seen

Yeah, Olive Garden does fantastic business in northern New England, where until recently the appearance of italians would cause a putting-aside of differences between the local fueding french and irish populations.

I'm glad that we all get along better now, but I missed witnessing some really cool fights.

So really, Olive Garden and Vinny Testa's is the italians way of getting back at the rest of us.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:53 PM on July 21, 2004

Goose-liver ravioli? Dunno if that's authentic, but my Sicilian grandmother and my Calabrese grandmother never made that for us...

Actually, now that I'm thinking about my favorites from them, I can't remember the names...just the descriptions..."The Salty Foofoo", "The Chicken Soup with the Red Oil".
posted by paddbear at 12:55 PM on July 21, 2004

People who think that the Olive Garden "tastes better" than Babbo really shouldn't clutter up the reservation list at Babbo so I don't have to think a month ahead. Ciao.

I have had several meals at Babbo, and they were all not just orgasmically delicious, they were little seminars in how a chef can bring out the elemental flavors in excellent ingredients, and never have to resort to the buzzy bullshit served up at great expense at, say, Jean-Georges' various vulgar "world" rip-offs.
posted by digaman at 12:58 PM on July 21, 2004

Don't generalize Chas. I just recently found a family-owned-and-run Italian restaurant that makes its own pasta fresh every morning. Four people can eat there with apps, entrees, wine and desert for $100. The food is incredible because it is simple, authentic and fresh.
posted by archimago at 1:01 PM on July 21, 2004

Yeah, Olive Garden does fantastic business in northern New England, where until recently the appearance of italians would cause a putting-aside of differences between the local fueding french and irish populations.

[off-topic ethnic rant]

Wait a minute, Mayor, my mother was born in Lombardi and raised in a quarry town in central Vermont, with enough of an Italian population that until I was 5, I though that all the state's old people spoke with accents. Maybe as a granite quarry town it's an exception to the rule, but I'd be surprised if Manchester and Portland didn't have some Italians.
posted by jonmc at 1:18 PM on July 21, 2004

Hospitaliano. I don't get this. L'italiano (the Italian language) doesn't overtly acknowledge the letter "H" as part of the alphabet. If it is used, it is as a place marker, and it is almost never pronounced. (Example: the appropriated word ‘Hotel’ is pronounced ‘OH-tell’). So, if Olive Garden was trying to adhere at all to the Italian language and guise authentic, it would be 'ospitaliano. (Which sounds deliciously like ‘ospidale'…the translation: ‘hospital’).

Also, for the record, zuppa toscana is actually like stuffing/dressing...more the consistency of something you'd use for a thanksgiving turkey. It is indeed beans, breadcrumbs, olio, and vegetables...but the breadcrumbs soak up all the liquid. I was underwhelmed when I sampled it in Firenze.
posted by naxosaxur at 1:39 PM on July 21, 2004

Digaman, just for the record I loved my meal at Babbo. And Lisa loved her pasta. [It even inspired an epic poem.] But her salad was a little too sophisticated for both of us; bitter greens aren't for everyone. Otherwise, you're right--Babbo is orgasmically delicious. Sorry, you can't have my reservation.
posted by adrober at 1:40 PM on July 21, 2004

jonmc, your quarry comment (as someone whose grandfather-in-law was a mason from Perugia) hit the nail on the head - if there are any Italians in Manchester or Portland, they went there to get away from their native cooking.
posted by jalexei at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2004

(still more ethnic digressing)

Portland, ME has quite a few Italians and several well-loved local Italian restaurants, which made it all the more perplexing as to the popularity of the Olive Garden near the Maine Mall in South Portland when it opened.
posted by briank at 2:05 PM on July 21, 2004

"Every resturaunt in the world under $40/entree pre-cooks its pasta."

This isn't even remotely true.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:30 PM on July 21, 2004

Portland, ME has quite a few Italians

And the italian and irish youth gangs HATED each other and fought constantly around Munjoy Hill. I was kind of kidding, but italian communities in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are much scarcer than they are below the mouth of the Merrimac. But yes, italians are found wherever expert marble (and even granite) cutters were needed. And it still kills me that until recently a town with francos, irish and italians had to have three catholic churches.

And Graziano's in Lisbon Falls, Maine is a fantastic neighborhood italian place.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:44 PM on July 21, 2004

And Graziano's in Lisbon Falls, Maine is a fantastic neighborhood italian place.

Agreed, though it's not as good since the "old man" died.
posted by briank at 3:04 PM on July 21, 2004

Peter Gibbons: Doesn't it bother you that you have to get up in the morning and you have to put on a bunch of pieces of flair?

Joanna: Yeah, but I'm not about to go in and start taking money from the register.

Peter Gibbons: Well, maybe you should. You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:49 PM on July 21, 2004

But yes, italians are found wherever expert marble (and even granite) cutters were needed.

Indeed. My nonno is one of the legendary Barre Carvers, but as I recall the only italian restaurant in town was a pizza joint, but a good one. And carvers tend to be from Northern Italy which is a very different cuisine from the (equally wonderful) Neopolitan fare that most Americans think of as Italian food.
posted by jonmc at 3:50 PM on July 21, 2004

In the Barre-Berlin-Montpelier area, Italian-American housewives used to open their front rooms as restaurants during the Depression and WWII. The husbands would go to the quarries to work, and the wives would cook for folks coming by as a way of bringing in extra money. My great-uncle would tell us about the different dishes he had during that time, eating at various houses.
posted by paddbear at 4:10 PM on July 21, 2004

I'm with lackutrol on Little Italy sucking--it's best for dessert tho, after a good cheap meal in Chinatown. : >

and now i want to try dinner at Babbo--who wants to take me?
posted by amberglow at 4:13 PM on July 21, 2004

Regarding garlic... historically northern Europeans, the French in particular, eat a lot more garlic than in the south. In the Middle Ages crusaders on Constantinople revolted the natives with their garlic breath. Her slight about garlic should be taken in the context of cultural differences that the Italians may find non-Italian to eat too much garlic.
posted by stbalbach at 5:56 PM on July 21, 2004

I've always had this one question about haute cuisine. (Especially as it is analysed by upper echelon reviewers) What's wrong with food simply tasting good?
(as an uncultured lout, I also ask this about Joyce and other lit., what's wrong with interesting?)
posted by Octaviuz at 7:35 PM on July 21, 2004

I was at the Olive Garden in N. Louisiana just the other night, and I liked it a lot. I mean *a lot*. The lasagna was well made, the pasta was good but not amazing, the chicken was tasty.

Sure, it wasn't Italian food as I had when I was a boy, but it was still better than the dinner served up in a family-run joint just a few days earlier.

But I see I'm almost alone in this thread. Perhaps because I had no idea the place was a chain and no preconceptions?
posted by bonaldi at 7:53 PM on July 21, 2004

I've never been to OG - having lived in Italy I would rather die than buy into that cloying shit - but when I travel in stripmall America, I sometimes have to go to chain restaurants, a horrific event for a city-bred snob like me.
But you know, Chili's has perfectly fine bar food. Especially when the alternative is Mickey D's.
After seeing millions of mouthwatering ads, I finally went to a place that had a Red Lobster. What a huge letdown that was! What IS that thing they say is a lobster tail? You know, that thing that manages to be both mealy and rubbery and look like it was extruded from some machine? Bleah.

Once I was in Fresno and there were some very elegant and slinky reporters from France and Spain asking the front desk at our hotel where to go for dinner. "McDonald's is down the street," the guy says. They laughed, delicately expelling smoke from flared nostrils. "No, no, what's the best restaurant in town? Somewhere with tableclothes," they said, figuring to rack up their expense accounts. The hotel guy understood now. He confidently sent them on their way ....to the Olive Garden. I remember cringing as I overheard this, thinking, 'is this the best we can do?'

Amberglow - Babbo it is!
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:06 PM on July 21, 2004

Has anyone ever played Cheese Chicken? Here are the instructions, which you can print out and take with you to The Olive Garden. Hospitaliano!

Ha Ha! Nothing better then making someone who makes servers wages job more annoying and miserable by having them play clown to a bunch of "funny" snobs.

Guess we can tell who works for a living around here.
posted by Snyder at 9:50 PM on July 21, 2004

"In the Middle Ages crusaders on Constantinople revolted the natives with their garlic breath." - stbalbach, now I can say I learded something today.

Meanwhile - can't we send Marcella Hazen to Krispy Kreme for dessert, to review their new "frozen doughnut" drink ?

I bet she'll love it.
posted by troutfishing at 5:09 AM on July 22, 2004

Reviewing what I said, calmer now, I apologize for the outburst, but I do have a chip on my shoulder vis a vis people who have games and other ways of having fun at the expense of food service workers, being one myself, as well as other minimum and low wage type workers.
posted by Snyder at 5:24 AM on July 22, 2004

Guess we can tell who works for a living around here.

Different sense of humour = unemployment. Rii-iight! I get it now.
posted by dmt at 5:48 AM on July 22, 2004

Actually, it was more of a "doesn't have to actually do real work for their money" thing I had intended. And I really don't care to simply handwave it away as a different sense of humor. I may find it funny to taunt the clerk with the Hindustani accent, but all it does is make me boorish, at minimum. The same applies here, I think.
posted by Snyder at 6:08 AM on July 22, 2004

"doesn't have to actually do real work for their money"

Coz work with these new fangled 'puter fings ain't real work, right? *boggles*

I may find it funny to taunt the clerk with the Hindustani accent, but all it does is make me boorish, at minimum

Ooooohhh, goodie!!! A straw man about superflously introduced racism. *Fetches lighter fluid, matches, marshmallows*

Snyder. It’s a website. Don’t take it quite so seriously.
posted by dmt at 6:22 AM on July 22, 2004

dmt, you know what he meant.

hush. no reason to beat him with the semantics stick.

Snyder: I understood what you meant. And yes, it would be incredibly rude and hateful. The only way someone would not think so is by considering their servers are "below" them.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:54 PM on July 23, 2004

Thanks Ynoxas, I appreciate that. For me, it's personal, working in food service, and while I have to deal with people feeling I'm below them every day I work, to one degree or another, if I encountered that level of rudeness I would either try to have them thrown out or throw their food in their face, depending on how crappy I felt at that moment. I really don't mind if people make hate the place I work, or think the food is crappy, I don't place my identity in the care of the company. By the same token, I don't really care to hear them either, what exactly do you expect me to do if you think a certain hot dog as "stupid" toppings, nor do I give a shit.

Working in food service, especially on the Olive Garden level, is difficult enough dealing with normal working conditions. People with some vague problem with my employer's business who would come in to make a "point" by making my life more miserable are people with stunted empathy and usually are the kind of lifestyle supremacists who are so tied up in consumerist identity that they can't see human beings, but only a "faceless corporation."
posted by Snyder at 7:57 PM on July 23, 2004

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