Olive Garden might have stopped playing those patronizing television commercials showing “actual Italians” as they arrive to stuff their faces at the corporate American restaurant, and that’s something, we guess.
But the chain is still smarting from last year, when John Oliver performed a masterful takedown
based upon a presentation by disgruntled shareholders who accused Olive Garden of serving “a mushy, unappealing product” that can be “barely edible.”
Criticisms included that “fried lasagna bites are not authentic Italian” and “vegetable lasagna topped with chicken doesn’t make any sense.”
Shareholders basically stopped just short of flashing, “What the fuck is this shit?” on the screen.
If there’s any truth to the slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family,” it’s specifically that you’re an overweight American family addicted to fat, salt, and sugar, and you want somebody to pile a mess of food on your plate that will leave you groaning as you waddle out to your car. And make something endless while you’re at it. We sure love endless and bottomless and do you have more of that please?
Which is why we arrived in Ann Arbor on Tuesday evening at an Olive Garden at their behest, our first time at the chain since the 1980s. Their invitation announced: “Olive Garden recently unveiled the most significant menu revolution in the restaurant’s history,” it read, “and you’re invited to try the new items” at “an exclusive, invite-only tasting event.” Would we go?
Not to go all Marilyn Haggerty here, but, in the interest of being nice and trying to maintain a veneer of proper restaurant criticism from here on out, let’s begin this way: The restaurant was packed at dinner, the service was good, our hosts were pleasant, the fellow “food bloggers” were enthusiastic … and the food was like a long-belted Midwesterner’s hallucination of what actual Italians eat.
For starters, it makes sense that Red Lobster and Olive Garden came from the same chain. The food at the Italian-inspired restaurant is often as goopy and narcotizing as Red Lobster’s oversauced dishes. And the breadsticks are much like Red Lobster’s famous Cheddar Bay biscuits, something for hungry people to grab and keep grabbing until they’re so stuffed they fall asleep at the table and are no longer able to reasonably dispute the fact the server claims they ordered five desserts to go (provided they can stay awake through the appetizers).
Of course, at a real Italian restaurant, you’d be ripping apart freshly baked bread, but Olive Garden’s breadsticks are saltier, oilier, somehow pretzel-like, as if to soften you up for ordering several more drinks than you normally would.
But you know what’s up with the breadsticks. We’ve all been to that never-ending trough before.
What’s new? By which we mean, “What is vaguely Italian by name but more likely to be found at a county fair?”
The “Italian margarita,” made with tequila, triple sec and “imported Italian amaretto.” This was the sweetest margarita ever, right down to the orange-flavored sugar crusted on the rim of the glass. It was like having hundreds of tiny candies attached to the glass. The orange slice in the glass was limp and thick with pith. Good thing they had that “authentic” orange sugar to make it taste orange-like.
Then came the first appetizer, an abortion no Italian would eat: crispy risottos bites. They appeared to be rice and cheese — we’re guessing here — that was breaded and deep-fried. Essentially what you get are hush puppies served with bright red acidic goop, an appetizer as Italian as, say, a corn dog or walking taco, just a little more difficult to pronounce.
Next was the artichoke fritti, a dish in which flavors overpowered flavors, none of which were good individually or Kama Sutra-ed on top of one another. The delicate artichoke, often served raw in Italy, was breaded and deep-fried. The subtle nuance of textures was gone, replaced by a soft center wrapped in crunchy breading. If that didn’t overpower enough, it came with a “citrus lemon sauce,” which overpowered even the breading and oil flavors. The artichoke never had a chance, right? We all know the chances are slim of any tender vegetable emerging from the Olive Garden’s kitchen without a dunking in a deep-fryer or being paired with a cloying sauce, but this confection really put the “choke” in artichoke.
The spicy Calabrian wings caused a groan. Here again was American food dressed up with an Italian name, and bar food at that. Not spicy enough, and overly salty, it came with a “gorgonzola sauce” that was, we surmise, a blend of Gorgonzola and ranch dressing. I asked the manager how one said “Hidden Valley” in Italian. He changed the subject deftly.
The roasted tomato Caprese salad wasn’t too bad. It contained mostly iceberg lettuce — I thought romaine had universally replaced iceberg at least a decade ago, but then restaurants would have nothing to stick a knife in for the DIY dinner enthusiasts — but also included a few pieces of kale, mostly symbolic of health. The big sport pepper seemed out of place, at least until the server began showering the salad plates with Parmesan, and we realized what we had was a cheese delivery system posing as a salad. (Sort of like a caloric delivery service posing as an Italian restaurant.)
The Mediterranean flatbread, we presume, was too offensive to even name after Italians. Unlike the fresh-looking, oversized pizza-like creations it calls to mind, here was a long piece of bread that was crispier than it was poofy, topped with olives and artichoke hearts, capers and roasted red peppers, but also covered with four Italian cheeses, basil pesto and olive oil. Simple is best when it comes to flatbreads, but not when what you really want to serve is Little Caesars cheesy bread in disguise.
Salmon bruschetta was the best dish, but that’s not saying very much. Bruschetta, as we all know, is a simple preparation of tomatoes, pesto, salt and pepper atop a sturdy piece of grilled toast. It’s a snack, something that would go well with a bottle of wine on a sunny day. It’s a great way to sample the flavors of fresh olive oil, and its simplicity doesn’t just shout authentic Italian, it roars it from the rooftops.
But can you take that preparation of tomatoes and basil pesto and perch it on top of a brick of food service salmon and call that “bruschetta”? Can you then set it on a bed of gummy rice, gooey sauce, and a half-dozen shrimp and call that foundation “seafood risotto”? Risotto should be a gentle dish, in which the individual bits of rice cohere just enough to stand together on a fork. This risotto looked as though it were adhered to the plate, and would probably stay on if the dish even if it were blasted out of a skeet-shooting target thrower.
The menu says the dish was “inspired by journeys through Italy.” If so, the journey must have been at very high speed and on powerful hallucinogens — and does through airspace count as through?
The citrus chicken Sorrento consisted of two rather flavorless medallions of chicken with a scorched lemon half and a few pieces of al dente broccoli. The dish has some good ideas — use honey, heat the lemon to sweeten it, and pair it with chicken to lower the calorie count — but executed like they didn’t give a cluck. Frankly, if you want to have a meal with fewer than 575 calories, you shouldn’t have any meat at all, and should get plenty of exercise by running the fuck away from the Olive Garden.
When the braised beef and tortelloni arrived, I believe I heard my Italian grandmother rise from her grave and shriek, and I don’t even have an Italian grandmother. This is Olive Garden’s bid to get your typical, overweight, American male to wolf down a plate of pasta and beef as if it were Alpo. Everything here is wrong. Instead of portion control, we get the oversized tortellini full of cheese and a bit of mushroom. Instead of a delicate cut of meat on the side, we get it tossed in with the pasta, and it’s not even a great cut of beef: It’s beef short ribs, cut to look like tiny bits of steak. Except these little steaks just suck up whatever flavor predominates, which here is cheese. But this dish’s average diner won’t notice; hell, this dish’s average diner won’t come up for air.
Finally a big bowl of pappardelle pescatore arrived, loaded with shrimp, scallops, and clams, in a creamy seafood sauce with asparagus, tomatoes and pappardelle pasta. Why pappardelle, a long, wide noodle that’s hard to get on your fork? Probably precisely for alliteration and nothing more, because it sure didn’t pop with complex flavors.
See, a skilled Italian chef would design a tomato sauce that submerged half the seafood and soaked up its flavors. Expertly prepared fish falls apart under fork pressure and enlivens the sauce, which then enriches the pasta. But this creamy sauce was there to sweeten the seafood, which, though well-prepared, would simply be speared on a fork and popped into one’s mouth, leaving the sauce poorer, and rendering the pappardelle that much less appetizing. Sort of like the perfect dish was reverse-engineered to miss every flavorful opportunity within reach. Even at Olive Garden, this was an impressive achievement.
Dessert was also “Italianese” — basically cake and ice cream, here disguised as an “apple Tuscan bread pudding.” Of course, by the time you’re trying to pound a piece of cake down your gullet after eating for more than an hour at the Olive Garden, that’s just collateral damage and can be skipped. Even so, I felt painfully bloated in a way I normally don’t, like I’d have to hold my breath to tie my shoes. As one of my hosts had said that night, “We want you to feel full.” Mission accomplished, signore