The Chain Challenge Finale | Olive Garden, Syracuse, N.Y.

Tour of Italy

Tour of Italy

It sounds like you lost a good bet. Actually, I think you won.

How do you explain what we were doing to the server? Natalie is a sweet girl who really believes that the food at Olive Garden is good. I can’t fault her for that. Actually, I commend her as she is representing her brand admirably. When it was time to order, we told Natalie that I lost a bet and that my friend Brian would be picking my dinner tonight. She thought it was funny and told me that I was really the winner in this situation.

***

The Chain Challenge was my gimmick to fundraise for Walk To End Alzheimer’s. It was actually my friend Brian’s idea. He thought that if I could raise a certain amount of money, in this case $1,500, that I should endure a meal at one of the mediocre chain restaurants that attract flocks of people for their mediocre fare and mediocre service. I raised $1,800. Now, we weren’t talking about Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s, The Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s. No, I was looking for the mid-range chain: Olive Garden, Outback, or Red Lobster. The restaurant that regular families choose to spend money at over perfectly good private establishments in their city. I don’t mean to demonize chains, as they do provide dining options and jobs to an area. And, let’s face it, not everyone cherishes the dining experience in the same was I do. Some people want to just eat and leave. And more power to them. It’s just not my thing.

***

As per Olive Garden tradition, Natalie arrived at our table for introductions with a bottle of wine in hand. Prior to her arrival, I was offered a deal. The arrangement had me eating a four-course meal — appetizer, soup/salad, entree, dessert — but Brian and his wife Jen said that I could swap dessert out if I drank the house wine. The Rocca delle Macie SaSyr is a 60/40 blend of Sangiovese and Syrah. It had all the character of Bud Light. No nose, a thin body, no sweetness, no acidity, no fruit, and no legs. Upon tasting it, I made a cringe face. Natalie was surprised when, after sampling and retching, I ordered a 9 oz. pour. The Wife and Jen each ordered a glass of riesling. Brian ordered a short Blue Moon draught, the best option of the non-bottled beers. When Natalie returned with a tall glass, she realized that the bar had screwed up. Rather than leave the glass and letting the error wash, she took it back to the bar for a new drink. Brian was left in the arid wasteland of being drinkless.

***

There has been much ado about nothing with the Olive Garden breadsticks. These soft, chewy, butter-slathered sticks are served in their plastic faux-wicker basket as an all-you-can-eat courtesy and guilty pleasure. Earlier in 2014, an investor report admonished Olive Garden for giving away too many breadsticks to diners, deeming them as a needless expense to the restaurant and demanding that the restaurant cutback on the offerings. We went through three baskets of breadsticks, though not necessarily because of their typically addictive nature. It seemed as half of every order was overcooked, leaving three of every five-piece order rock hard. Jen, as she attempted to set her breadstick down, actually made it clank against the green-rimmed stoneware plate. The noise drew a laugh, and then we realized that nearly every breadstick in the order was more stick than bread.

Pasta e fagioli, with ground beef and carrots

Pasta e fagioli, with ground beef and carrots

Our opening salvo was the soup and salad course. Each entree at the restaurant comes with the promise of unlimited servings of each. Brian and I each ordered the pasta e fagioli, a muddled blend of tomato and beef stock, mixed with pasta, beans and ground beef. Previously, this soup had been without meat, so the presence of beef confused me. Pasta e fagioli is a largely meatless dish, save for pancetta or bacon that may be used to start the base. Natalie delivered a massive bowl of salad for the women, which would have been fine had the wives planned to both eat salad. The Wife was going for the famously bottomless salad bowl, while Jen had ordered the chicken and gnocchi soup. Natalie went in search of the missing soup. It turned out that the kitchen, apparently unable to keep up with the demand from the nearly full restaurant, was unable to put ladle to bowl. Jen’s soup came out nearly 10 minutes after my appetizer arrived.

***

Angotti’s, Asti Caffe, Francesca’s Cucina, Frankie’s Piccolo Bistro, Pascale’s, Pastabilities, Joey’s, Attilio’s, Basil Leaf, Nestico’s, Rico’s, and Santangelo’s. There, I’ve named 12 Italian restaurants in Syracuse that are owned by individuals or families and each offer their own take on Italian cuisine. A couple of them are good, a couple of them are great, and all of them makeup the fabric of city with a strong Italian-American heritage.

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And while we’re at it, you can get a really good Italian meal at the Pomodoro and Benucci’s restaurants in the Rochester area. And, if you’re in Buffalo, you have Chef’s. There are probably other, maybe even better, spots in Western New York. What I’m saying is that people have options.

***

Oh, and there’s Lombardo’s in Albany.

***

Lasagna fritta

Lasagna fritta

 

Lasagna fritta up close

Lasagna fritta up close

The lasagna fritta was described by Brian and Jen as the most offensive thing they could think to order for me that wasn’t seafood related. Prepared like fried mozzarella, two pasta squares were stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta, breaded and fried. They were presented with a light coating of marinara sauce over a layer of alfredo sauce. They were rich and flavorless. I’m not sure how one can put so many flavors together on one plate and forget to add flavor, yet here we were. The Wife and Brian planned to share an order of bruschetta. When the fritta arrived, the food server brought out a bowl of steaming hot mozzarella. It turns out we were delivered the smoked mozzarella fonduta. Natalie took this away and went on another journey, searching for the bruschetta.

Fonduta

Fonduta

***

A minute or two after Natalie walked away, another food server arrived with entrees. As Natalie came by, we told her to call off the search party on the bruschetta. Natalie returned about 10 minutes after the entrees were served, bruschetta in hand. She apologized and offered the appetizer for free, courtesy of her manager. It languished on the table.

Bruschetta

Bruschetta

***

The current Olive Garden promotion revolves around its Tours of Italy. Each is a trio of Italian dishes inspired by Northern and Southern Italian cuisine. Brian chose the classic tour for me. The presentation of fettuccine alfredo, chicken parmigiana and lasagna filled my platter in the way that I remember from my high school and college days, when we were broke enough to consider the Olive Garden an attainable, nice evening out. I just don’t remember the Tour of Italy being so below average. For instance, I did not realize that one could burn fettuccine, but there were brown, crunchy spots in one region of the fettuccine. The rest of pasta was limp leading me to believe that my platter took a lengthy vacation under a heat lamp and maybe my pasta was too close to the heating element. This also explains the cheese situation on the chicken parmigiana and lasagna. The mozzarella looked lifeless and dry, as if it had been cooked hours ago and held for too long in a heated area. Cheese had pulled away from the edges and the sauce underneath the cheese rendered the chicken cutlet breading soggy.

Crunchy fettuccine

Crunchy fettuccine

Chicken parmigiana

Chicken parmigiana

While the chicken was average at best, the lasagna was barely edible. It is pictured on the Olive Garden website as proud and standing tall, and described as “prepared fresh daily with layers of pasta, Italian cheeses and our homemade meat sauce.” It was depressing; structurally flat and ripe with a phony flavor. An overpowering Italian sausage flavor of oregano and fennel drowned everything else out. I took two bites and decided that I couldn’t finish it. It just wasn’t any good.

***

(For those who don’t know what Pittsburgh style is.) It appeared as if Brian had the only tolerable entree at the table. While we joked about the parmesan drizzle, he described his primavera lasagna as average. Jen ordered the steak gorgonzola alfredo. In theory, four steak medallion were to be presented with gorgonzola cheese over fettuccine alfredo. In practice, Jen received four pieces of undercooked beef — she requested medium well — over a bowl of pasta with a scant serving of creamy alfredo sauce. And, even though she asked that sun-dried tomatoes be withheld, she spent part of the time picking out the offenders that snuck in.

The Wife wanted a bowl of pasta with marinara and the best she could get her hands on was the Cucina Mia section of the menu where you could choose your pasta and sauce. She opted for the giant ravioli with five-cheese marinara. We gave up on guessing what cheeses were involved — I guessed asiago, parmesan, and romano before giving up; turns out it is mozzarella, parmesan, romano, ricotta and fontina — because staring too long at the sauce made us think about our daughters. During their infant days, we would spoonfeed them squash or carrots, only to have them spit it back up on their bib. The Wife’s pasta sauce had the same shade and consistency. Missy ate about one-third of her entree before forfeiting.

***

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So, here’s the ultimate problem with the Olive Garden: there’s no value. It would be one thing if the food was good, or if the food was reasonably priced. I could give it a pass if the recipe developers made even the slightest attempt at serving a nutritionally-rich meal (my Tour of Italy had 1,500 calories, 93 grams of fat, 47 grams of saturated fat, 3 grams of trans fat, and 3,210 mg of sodium).

They do none of that. Our pre-tip bill was $113. Our average entree cost was $15. Sure, I had a big plate of whatever, but even Missy’s bowl of vomit pasta was $11.99, on par with a bowl of penne vodka from Asti Caffe

The Tour of Italy weighed in at $17.99. For $17.90, I could have sat at Angotti’s and ordered a full-size chicken parmigiana with a side of pasta and a full-sized lasagna. And, there would have been so much food that I would have brought at least one whole entree’s worth home.

So, what’s my problem with restaurants like Olive Garden? They are a reflection of who we are as a people. We should want more for our money. We should demand higher quality food. We should expect our $113 plus tip gets us consistent service and better quality from the kitchen. But, we don’t. We settle. We settle for warmed over chicken parmigiana made days before. We sit there and take undercooked steak. We watch as the server discards a 20 oz. beer and orders a 16 oz. because of a mistake.

We settle because driving downtown to a quality family-owned restaurant is too hard or because we believe the neighborhood is unsafe. Instead, we go to the suburban outpost with plentiful parking and burned pasta.

We have been deluded into the belief that mediocre is not only good, but it’s the best we can do.

That is the crime of Olive Garden.

***

Natalie did nothing (or very little) wrong, and there was nothing she could do to make the evening better. She was the perfect ambassador of the Olive Garden in every way that I teach my staff to represent our brand. We tipped 20 percent because how could we do lower? The only person to get hurt in that instance is Natalie because, at the end of the night, she takes our table’s $22 tip and tips out the hostesses, bar staff, runners, and bus team. Our 20 percent shrinks to about 15 percent (her taxable rate) by the time she ends the night. It’s not her fault that the kitchen was inept. She was not the one who was incapable of reading the call slip for Brian’s beer. Tipping her at 20 percent is the only thing that I would do over again in that scenario.

Because it’s the frontline person, the Natalie’s of the restaurant industry, who get hurt in these instances. She makes $3 an hour before gratuities and I could not justifiably punish her for the sins of her employer. So, when I think about what she said to me as we ordered — “It sounds like you lost a good bet. Actually, I think you won.” — I have to disagree.

No Natalie, we all lose.

Olive Garden is located at 3147 Erie Blvd. E. in Syracuse between Thompson Road and Bridge Street. Dinner for four, pre-tip, was $113. 

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