Marilyn Hagerty, an octogenarian columnist with the Grand Forks paper, recently wrote a review about the Olive Garden that went viral.  I don’t expect mine to do the same, but I was inspired to share my thoughts on this part of America’s chain-restaurant wasteland. Chain restaurants are like Presidential campaigns.  In a general election (not the primary season when the opposite of what I am about to describe happens) Presidential candidates attempt to appeal to the masses.  A candidate that is too “spicy”, has too many creative or jarring ideas isn’t going to appeal to the largest slice of the electorate and they’ll likely lose.  So candidates attempt to appeal to the masses and how do you do that?  Be as bland and flavorless as possible.  People may not love you, but they’ll like you enough to vote for you (or in Olive Garden’s case order and eat you).  And that is how I find chain restaurants to be, in general, and the Olive Garden is especially guilty (it’s even faster fare cousin, Fazoli’s can enter a plea also).  Gone are the generous flavors of oregano, basil, sage, and parsley that are used in real Italian kitchens, replaced instead with smothering amounts of bland cheese and tomatoes.  This is a photo of my 5-cheese ziti the other night when we went to the Olive Garden to celebrate my Mom’s birthday. It was passable pasta, but does it compare to anything you might get in Italy or even in an Italian enclave of a large American city?   Of course not. Do I enjoy going to the Olive Garden?  Sure.  When we do go, it’s usually with family and friends which by its nature is enjoyable.  The endless breadsticks (again, bland bread with a hint of garlic..God forbid we add flavor) and salad and good conversation can make it an enjoyable evening.  But it’s barely a facsimilie of true Italian food.  Americans love consistency and predictability and you get that at Olive Garden (except when my Dad ordered the lobster florentine and was mistakenly given chicken florentine and then guilted into keeping it by the waitress who kept guffawing that her mistake was actually better for his wallet since chicken is cheaper).

So, what are your impressions of the Olive Garden?  And if you wanted to recommend a Mom & Pop type Italian restaurant that uses REAL spices and recipes, where would you recommend?