Authentic Italian Goo

Is it strange that I actually like the Olive Garden? It’s pretty much my go-to restaurant for birthdays and anniversaries, but it seems like it takes a lot of flack. There was a segment on the next-to-latest Last Week Tonight about how the Olive Garden was trying to figure out how to improve their business, and apparently someone from a hedge fund said their food was “unappetizing goop.” John Oliver went along with bashing the place, which is pretty typical of comedy shows. I remember one Daily Show bit where Jon Stewart made a joke about Arby’s, then asked why the media are always picking on Arby’s. I think part of the contempt for chain restaurants is just because audiences are going to know what they are, and I think most of us can appreciate a good screw-you to a popular brand, as long as it’s funny. The thing is, though, I can’t help but suspect there’s also a bit of snobbery involved here, as if people think, “A relatively inexpensive restaurant that lower-class people frequent CAN’T be any good.” Some people will try to coat it in concern, pointing out that the food isn’t particularly nutritious, but it’s not like that’s why anyone eats it anyway. Besides, do you really think all these people are worried about strangers’ health? What’s weird is that a fair amount of food snobbery seems to come from people who hold mostly liberal opinions, even though it’s essentially putting down the poor. Part of it might be anti-corporatism, but it’s not like the places that more expensive and supposedly better food aren’t also in it for the money. I’m sure the Olive Garden has some shady business practices (wasn’t there something about their firing employees because they didn’t want to pay for health care?), but I like their food anyway. Another complaint I hear occasionally is that they don’t serve authentic Italian food, but since when does authenticity directly correlate with quality?

Mind you, I think the Olive Garden is inviting these criticisms somewhat with commercials that point out things like how their chefs study in Tuscany (although I’m not sure they ever specify WHAT they study in Tuscany). If they were more open about just being Italian-inspired, it might help. It’s not like I hear people complaining that the Outback Steakhouse doesn’t serve authentic Australian food.

This isn’t to say they aren’t areas where I’m a bit of a food elitist. For instance, I don’t care much for American cheese, which I consider a pale imitation of cheddar. Then again, I grew up with sharp cheddar cheese, and I think a lot of what you like is just what you’re used to. I’m not really that keen on McDonald’s, although I do love their breakfast sandwiches (even though they use American cheese). The other day, I had a slice of Domino’s Pizza for the first time in years, and I wondered if I was just buying into the hype about their pizza being lousy. But no, I really didn’t care for it. It’s like it had the right texture for pizza, but none of the flavor. If you DO like these things, though, that’s fine. You’re probably saving money. And I’m usually not as much of a snobby eater as simply a picky eater. In fact, when I’ve been to more expensive restaurants, I’ve noticed they tend to have only a few items on the menu, each of which contains at least one ingredient I don’t like. Not to mention that they’re more likely to sneak in stuff that the menu doesn’t warn you about. Yeah, I guess I still have a childish palate in many ways (don’t ruin my pizza put putting VEGETABLES on it), and while I think I’m now more willing to at least try new things, I still prefer the familiar.

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6 Responses to Authentic Italian Goo

  1. Bryan Babel says:

    “Judgment in the name of sophistication has somehow remained acceptable, even laudable, in today’s culture that scorns judgment in other forms.”
    — Michael Wear

  2. Joe says:

    I’ve eaten and enjoyed food at The Olive Garden, though after two less-than-ideal experiences the last two times I ate there (which is going on about seven years ago), I stopped eating there altogether. There is admittedly a kind of snobbery attached to avoiding places like that, but for New Yorkers at least, it’s generally a food-quality snobbery, not a financial one. The fact is that there are some amazing Italian restaurants throughout the city and suburbs that are both affordable and of high quality. Also, many around here are of Italian descent and are familiar with home-cooked Italian meals. So, our standards tend to be higher as a result.

    Having traveled outside of New York, however, finding that standard proves challenging at best. In those cases, I would probably welcome an Olive Garden.

    As to hidden ingredients in food, for me–as a vegan–asking questions has become a regular part of the dining out experience, but not an unpleasant one (unless I stupidly forget to ask and discover an unhappy surprise). :)

    • Nathan says:

      When there are a lot of other affordable options, I can see why the Olive Garden might not seem as appealing. I don’t know that the other places have unlimited breadsticks, though.

  3. I’m glad you addressed this, because I agree and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it brought up like this before. I mean, obviously it’s not a BIG deal in a world of injustice, but it’s nice just to see ones feelings addressed. I love Olive Garden. I don’t care how authentic and/or fancy it is. If I want authentic Italian I’ll go to a church dinner (little known benefits of being Catholic). It’s funny, you mention Olive Garden being affordable, which I guess it is, but we consider it one of our “fancy special occasion” dinner destinations. ;)

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