Re-launched, but still slightly under construction. :-)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Buona Festa! Olive Garden out of the closet

Now that the Olive Garden has come out with what employees already knew, that most of its "authentic Italian menu" is neither authentic nor Italian, I wonder who the restaurant had actually fooled all these years?

This is not an authentic Italian restaurant.

Certainly, Americans are not known for their intercontinental travel itineraries. So one can't expect that we would have a great deal of first-hand experience with the cuisines of other nations. But we are a nation of immigrants. Someone must have known something. "Jersey Shore" didn't obliterate everything we know of Italy, did it? I mean, the country is still standing, even though they brought their noxious cloud of Axe, stale cigarette smoke and gonorrhea to rest over the historic landscape.

How is this a big mystery solved? It's not like it was really a secret. No one who has ever eaten food at the home of an Italian family - heck, no one who has ever seen or read "Eat, Pray, Love" - would ever think that this is "authentic." So how is this even newsworthy? It's newsworthy because Darden Restaurants has been feeding Ignorant Americans this line of bullcorn for 20 years. If someone lied to you for 20 years about the very foundation of his or her existence, wouldn't you be pissed? No good can come from that.

I've never been to Italy (if anyone wants to sponsor a trip, I'll be happy to blog about it), but even I know that "pastachetti" is a bullcorn word. I know their wine selection is an exercise in mediocrity. I hold no illusions that anyone in the kitchen had learned to make Mortadella and then learned how to stuff it into intestinal casings themselves.

I worked at the Olive Garden for a few years, and the level of corporate bullcrap would make your spaghetti spin off your fork. At one staff meeting, we were asked to discuss the merits of Italian sociability.

"Can anyone tell me what 'hospitaliano' means?" the manager asked.

I raised my hand: "It's a word the marketing department made up to sell more food to people who don't know any better."

I can't imagine why I never won Employee of the Month.

This is not an authentic Italian insalata.

None of this means it isn't tasty food. Frankly, I liked a lot of it, the way I love veggie chips. Just as I don't think there are fresh vegetables in the bag, I also didn't think there was actually someone's Nonna in a test kitchen in Tuscany working her arthritic fingers to the bone to bring "authentic Italian food" to the American masses. Classic Italian recipes are well documented. What would they have been paying her for, transcription services?

Did they send their employees to Italy for training? I don't know. Maybe. I never knew anyone who went. But corporate offered a contest every year to employees. In theory, one employee from each district got to travel to the test kitchen in Tuscany to learn more about Italian food and to "bring that knowledge back to co-workers." Riiiiight. I saw "travel to... Tuscany," and immediately took home an application.

This is not an authentic Italian chicken marsala.

"Describe how this trip would allow you to bring the Hospitaliano philosophy back to your store to encourage your co-workers and better serve your customers?" it asked. Well, roughly; I don't remember the precise wording.

There were only so many stores in our district, maybe 10. Of those stores, each one submitted only one or two applications each year - about a dozen, total. I had a one in 12 chance of winning a trip to Italy. Them's good odds.

Y'all. I spent two weeks working on this essay. I worked hard. It was a four-page masterpiece of precise grammar, adjectival acrobatics and effusive corporate bullhockey. The only other employee to enter at our store was a 45-year-old grouchface, despised by many, beloved by none. She was not the epitome of "hospitaliano," whatever corporate wanted that to mean. She was the epitome of pathos. She turned in a two-sentence response to the question that - even in that short composition - contained TWO comma splices (don't judge me, y'all. I totally don't copy edit a dang thing I put up here). If everyone put as little thought as her into this contest, I was a shoe-in.

Or so I thought. Guess whose application got forwarded to corporate as the store selection?

Maybe I shouldn't have been such a smartass.

This is not an authentic Italian... heck, I don't know WTF this is. Is it even edible?

In truth, the comment I made at the company meeting was well after my application had been rejected; after I worked 10 hours of a 50-hour workweek off the clock, more than once, so the company didn't have to pay overtime; and after the third time I had to complain about the same male employee slapping my butt - one time, so hard that it left a bruise. He was later named Employee of the Month.

But, as serving jobs go, it actually wasn't a bad deal. A flexible schedule and cash-in-hand were very nice things for a college student. It was also a valuable crash course in basic public relations. Anyway, I worked at worse places. There's a certain steakhouse in town that I won't go near because I know how the kitchen is run.

This is not an authentic Italian waitress.

I am comfortable eating at the Olive Garden, although I didn't often eat there before I worked there, and I have only been back once, at my mother-in-law's request. I know the food has been stored and prepared appropriately, and I know the kitchen is clean. I know the servers work their butts off. (No one's back there making eighteen bowls of salad for your table, or wrapping as many baskets of breadsticks, guys. They run all shift long - especially during Never-ending Pasta Bowl month. Tip the shit out of them.) But I also know the food is not "hospitaliano." It's not authentic. It's not Italian. At best, it's "Italian fusion," which is like saying "nouveau Southern cuisine" - the basic ingredients and spices are the same, but there are non-native elements to them.

This is not an authentic Italian.

Usually, however, these fusion methods are not created by a corporation. Fusion is inspired by a diaspora of people and culture, in such a way that the ingredients from the immigrant culture and the native culture melt into a delicious amalgam of non-traditional but complementary flavors. Think jalapeno cornbread. But just as your Southern grandmother would not be caught dead at a freaking Po Folks restaurant, because the food is crap and the name even worse, "Uncle Nick" from the Italian side of your family would not be caught dead at the Olive Garden.

They say to find the best ethnic cuisine in your area, eat where there is an abundance of people of that ethnicity dining. For example, if you want Korean in Augusta, you don't go to Blue Sky Kitchen - though I do enjoy their version of bulgogi. You go to Arirang on Deans Bridge Road. Because what you get at Blue Sky isn't really bulgogi. Likewise, you don't go to Bonefish Grill thinking the Bang-Bang Shrimp is authentic Thai food, either. You go to Thai Kitchen for authentic Thai food. So you don't go to Olive Garden for Italian food. Italians won't set foot in the place.

I'll let Anthony Bourdain sum it up it in his own special way: "Olive Garden? That. Is. Not. Italian. Food. It may sound Italian, but so does chlamydia. That's not any good, either."


  1. I've been invited to go to Olive Garden on a couple of occasions but haven't taken them up on the invite. To be honest I didn't even know it was supposed to be an Italian restraunt. I just kind of figgured I'd pick from the menu whatever sounded good. I'll now go with an open mind, but, if they try to speak with an accent I'll probably laugh out loud.