What most Americans think 'Italian Food' is
The closest Italian restaurant to nearly 70% of Americans is an Olive Garden. Or at least it seems that way.
The world's largest dine-in restaurant company is Darden Restaurants, Inc. of Orlando, FL, the home of Mickey Mouse. The Olive Garden Italian-American casual chain is their largest and best known subsidiary, with nearly 900 locations throughout North America. If you are fortunate enough to live either in a large metro area or, like myself, in an enclave of descendants of Italian immigrants, you would not have to go to an Olive Garden if you wanted some spaghetti, lasagna, or some fettucine alfredo. But nearly all of us in flyover country go to the OG, instead.
the Servers Nightmare, with Pasta Fagioli soup
I admit there are a few good reasons to walk into an Olive Garden. The most common is that you may not want to drive 100 miles to the nearest mom-and-pop place. Another fine reason: it is a good workday lunch spot, with several lunch specials including their ubiquitous Soup, Salad & Breadsticks, which I refer to as the 'Servers Nightmare'. For one price you are entitled to all the soup, salad and/or breadsticks your dignity allows. Although there are many that would argue with me, I happen to love their pasta fagioli soup, as well as their vinagrette salad dressing. Probably because both are 49% sugar. I can actually live without their breadsticks, which makes me a welcome lunch partner to everyone I know, who devour the things as if they were sprinkled with crack cocaine.
Amongst the snooty snoots like myself as well as the Elite Coastal Media, Olive Garden is something to be reviled. Some poor old lady in Nebraska put a sincere restaurant review of her local OG branch a few years back, and the entire Internet spit-roasted her for two weeks! There are certain characteristics of a typical Olive Garden entree that I find repulsive, when compared to what I consider 'real' Italian food. As you might have guessed by now, I am Johnny Out-of-step because 900 locations don't lie. The same things that repulse me are absolutely A-OK for most of the rest of America.
What am I on about? I'll keep it simple, like they should have: Let's just go over some of the 'specials' available on their most recent seasonal initiative, the 'Oven Baked Pastas' menu:
Smoked Mozzarella Shrimp Rigatoni
the salad was good, though
It...it's, what, four totally unrelated words thrown together and up above is the gruesome aftermath of this unholy gangbang. I mean, if you break it down, alfredo sauce originated in the Lazio state of Italy. Lazio does have a coast so I guess folks would eat seafood there. Not sure they are shrimp fishermen though let's assume they are. But do they really smoke the mozzarella there? I would smoke a brisket, or ribs, maybe even a paprika but a semi-soft cheese?
At least there's a few sprigs of spinach to provide some green food nutrition.
Asiago Tortelloni Alfredo with Grilled Chicken
I must admit as a food I thought it was pretty good
Lots of American restaurants utilize Asiago cheese in many ways. It is in fact Italian in origin, and it has a stronger flavor than mozzarella, yet melts better than parmesan. A tortellini is a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli, except it is formed into little round forms the size of gnocchi. It is chewier than gnocchi and not as delicate. Where I live, most of us simply refer to tortellinis as 'ravs' and ignore real ravioli all together because it's too 'squishy'. Yes, I am circling around this dish because perhaps it would have been deliciously workable until they piled the damn grilled chicken on top.
Four-meat Italian Mac and Cheese
(trying hard not to go all caps, here) Isn't the whole...point...of mac and cheese is that....there's....no....meat?? Perhaps the single greatest comfort food known to humankind, and you've gone and thrown a bunch of mystery meat atop?
I disclose that I have never been to Italy, although I would love to someday. The closest I have been is Little Italy on Taylor Street in Chicago. Let's consider a few things, though. Margherita pizza is widely considered to be the first and traditional pizza, and it has three ingredients: tomato, mozzarella, and basil. The best mariana I have ever had also had three ingredients: tomato, olive oil, and garlic. Pasta has two: egg and flour. Mozzarella cheese: milk and rennet.
Based on those facts, I contend that great Italian cooking is simple. Its success relies on the quality of its ingredients and the skill of the cook. The simplicity leads to excellence on both counts. The Olive Garden equation on the other hand is to take a thing and complicate it with more ingredients and layers because the American public is fascinated with more. I know I'm the same guy who orders fried eggs on his burgers but Italian food is all about 'less is more' which means 'more is more' doesn't equate.
So are the baked pastas harbingers of the End Days, or am I being hysterical?
Go ahead and leave your two cents in the comments!