You don’t have to drive very far to find a corporate Italian restaurant in America. This country’s suburban thoroughfares are lined with Olive Gardens, Carino’s, and Romano’s Macaroni Grills. While they all claim to be different, there are many similarities on the menus, meaning there’s a pedestrian formula that these Americanized Italian places undoubtedly use. As a restaurant critic, I seldom review corporate Italian restaurants because all the chains strive, as a fundamental tenet, to be consistent in their fare from location to location. So, reviewing corporate restaurants is somewhat irrelevant when each restaurant has nearly identical menus. Anyway, no matter how bad the food is at these places the parking lots are still full everyday–no matter what some restaurant critic says. But here are a few things you should know about Italian dining on the boulevard.
1) Too Much Sauce
Anyone who has ever eaten authentic Italian food (let’s say, at a regional Italian restaurant) can tell you that corporate Italian restaurants overly sauce the food. Pasta dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese and fettuccini Alfredo often become goopy messes by the time the cooks get done with them. The same goes for most of the non-pasta entrees, especially the Americanized eggplant parmigiana and chicken Marsala. Real Italian food is simple, ingredient-driven fare, in which sauce gets used sparingly as an accent. Balance is another nuance that makes real Italian food so delicious. Yet most corporate Italian restaurants are too heavy-handed with the sauce and sodium to understand the concept of well-balanced food.
2) Too Much Salt
While I’m on the subject of sodium, corporate Italian places tend to overly salt the food.
Dishes with salty ingredients like capers, Parmesan cheese, and prosciutto don’t need much additional salt. One of the saltiest meals I’ve ever had was the chicken piccata at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Yikes! I was thirsty for days after that dining experience!
If it’s indeed true that corporate Italian places (Olive Garden, in particular) make their sauces from scratch everyday, then the recipe developers need to tone down the salt levels in much of the food. Either that, or the cooks need to quit taking liberties with the seasonings. At least heat-and-eat formula sauces (that are made elsewhere to the companies’ standards) would lead to more control over the inconsistency of the sauces. (I doubt the pimply teenagers that cook most of this food are trained in the fine art of seasoning food properly.)
3) Bread Not So Authentico
Like the French, Italians like good bread. Unfortunately the bread that’s served at corporate Italian places would receive a failing grade in Italy. Carino’s dishes up a loaf that looks promising, as least when it arrives at the table. But it doesn’t take long to realize that this rustic loaf is a dumbed-down version of the real thing. Its supposedly hard crust is just an illusion; the bread round nearly flattens to the cutting board when you try to slice it–not hard-crusted and chewy, like good Italian bread should be. And Olive Garden’s breadsticks are so Americanized that I like to call them “Wonder Bread sticks.” But gaggles of suburbanites pack the parking lots every night, undoubtedly in the their new stimulus-package cars, for a taste of these bland bread sticks. Romano’s Macaroni Grill seems to have slightly better bread, yet its Tuscan bread is still a far cry from the stuff made in that Italian region. (These bread products are usually par-baked, meaning the restaurant receives them in a partially cooked frozen form, and then they finish them in the oven–to give a freshly baked impression.)
4) Hey Mambo! Vino Italiano!
Most corporate Italian places have similar wine lists–lots of average Italian and American table wines, with the exception of a few dusty bottles of Barolo. People want affordable wines, especially in the current economy, so value-brands tend to be the norm at Carino’s Olive Grill. Expect to find overplayed California wines, like Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and Ravenswood Zinfandel, and unremarkable Chianti and Sangiovese–presumably purchased in big lots with savings in mind. Many of these places lead you to believe (per menu verbiage) that they have “special relationships” with top-notch Italian vineyards, when this simply isn’t true–they typically buy what’s the cheapest and most abundant.
5) Not Another Goopy Tiramisu
Tiramisu is so ubiquitous at corporate Italian restaurants that it nearly has become a household word. This common Italian dessert (typically made with ladyfinger cookies or sponge cake, dark chocolate, whipped mascarpone, and liqueur) has made its way onto every corporate menu, with varying degrees of success. When it’s done right, tiramisu can be a heavenly amalgam of creaminess and rich flavors. Or it can be an overly sweet goopy mess, garnished with a sliced strawberry and mint leaf. Most corporate Italian restaurants serve a pedestrian version of the authentic dessert. I often stick with gelato– mostly out of the fear of being served a miserable tiramisu–unless I’m dining in a true Italian restaurant.
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