The Atlantic, one of the last bastions of great writing, had a story on its website this week that should shock no one with a vowel at the end of their last name. Apparently, The Olive Garden‘s “culinary institute” in Tuscany is really a bed and breakfast rented by the restaurant chain.
Well, not entirely a sham. The poster, going by the name Fidelia079, says he was sent to the culinary institute in 2007, which he describes as “more like a hotel.” But he says the trip was essentially glorified sight-seeing outing, with a little training sprinkled on top.
The Olive Garden has a certain role in the American restaurant landscape — lunch. Soup, salad and breadsticks is as good of a deal as it gets. The soup isn’t even that good, but I think the salad dressing and breadsticks are laced with something. But, if I’m given my choice of mediocre chain or mediocre locally-owned restaurant, I’m going with the latter. At the very least, you can assume that the mediocre bowl of pasta from the local storefront was prepared on site and did not require a lot of preservatives to ship from a processing plant.
The Olive Garden would use an adjoining restaurant “as a classroom for maybe an hour here or there and talk about spices or fresh produce for a minute,” he explains, and “the only time we saw the ‘chef’ was when she made a bolognese sauce while taking pictures with each of us to send to our local newspapers.” When it all ended, he adds, the Olive Garden “sent pre-written articles out to local newspaper with fake quotes from me and a group photo.” In a back-and-forth with commenters that careens in all sorts of improbable directions, he says his biggest takeaway from the trip was that “most italian food isn’t like OG (shocker right) In Italy they like to use a few simple ingredients.”
I cannot say that I’m entirely surprised. I’m also not surprised that The Olive Garden does well, especially in a city like Syracuse. Cities like mine in the Northeast have more small, family-owned Italian restaurants than you can shake a stick at, running the gamut from casual (Angotti’s, Paisan’s, and — gag — Dominick’s) to more formal (Asti, Francesca’s, Pascale’s) and the Pastabilities, Carnegie Cafe in the middle. Even Carrabba’s is pretty good. But on any given weekend night, the two Olive Garden locations in the ‘Cuse are packed.
The are multiple FOJs (Friends of Jared) who frequent The Garden and others that will call me a snob. That last fact is absolutely spot on. I am a snob. Italian food is not just about the sauce or just about the cheese. Italian cooking is so beautifully diverse. My family subsisted on red sauce, but embraced the incorporation of vegetables. My grandfather, after 30 years at Carrier, turned the acreage behind his house into a farm. One of the great meals my father makes is a ponza (sic) — a stuffed and roasted veal breast that is served cold. The Wife’s family is a mix of the red sauce and the Piedmontese/Tyrolean region, where rice and cornmeal dot the menu.
Last year, when an Olive Garden commercial came out depicting chefs in white coats at the rustic cooking school tasting tomato sauce and kissing their fingertips, questions spread on sites like Twitter and Facebook about whether the Olive Garden was drawing its inspiration from the Old Country or a really good advertising executive. CNN investigated and determined that the institute–situated on a property known as Riserva di Fizzano–is open for 11 weeks each winter, inviting over 100 top Olive Garden chefs and managers for cooking lessons led by a Tuscan chef, and serves as a bed and breakfast for the rest of the year. They did not issue any findings on whether this actually improves the Olive Garden menu.