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The Olive Garden Has No Choice But to Overcook Pasta

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Photo: diaper/Flickr

The restaurant chain Olive Garden offers genuine Italian cuisine in an authentic Tuscan environment that only Darden Restaurants, Inc., a multi-brand restaurant operator headquartered in Florida, could provide. And today the Wall Street Journal pulls back the curtain a bit and confirms that the Olive Garden and its diners might just be the absolute worst.

The Olive Garden is at the mercy of the kind of people who eat at Olive Garden, and the chain has no choice but to bend to their wistful, suburban, and tyrannical needs. That means value (a $6.95 unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks lunch special), overcooked pasta, frosted salad bowls, and avoiding confusing words like "gnocchi." Time to break it all down:

1) In field tests, diners wouldn't order gnocchi. That is, "until chefs at the company's Orlando, Fla., headquarters tried gnocchi in chicken soup, billed as a 'traditional Italian dumpling.'"

2) Olive Garden HQ knows that their diners have limits: "Capers, with their salty, pickled flavor, are too unexpected for many customers, says a spokeswoman."

3) And the restaurant chain will do whatever it takes to make customers happy: "At Olive Garden, pasta is served soft, not al dente or slightly firm, the traditional Italian method."

4) So is it authentic or not? "We don't use the word authentic," said the president of Olive Garden. He prefers the term "Italian inspired."

5) The chain does indeed take "inspiration" from Italy: Chefs at Olive Garden HQ went on a trip to Northern Italy and had "fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs." Somehow that dish was "reverse-engineered" into "baked pasta romana—a mix of lasagna pasta, rich cheese sauce, spinach and either a beef or chicken topping." Originally it was chicken with roasted tomato sauce, but diners didn't find it "cravable."

6) And the chain pushes the limits of gastronomy: "Earlier this year, a pear and Gorgonzola ravioli with shrimp went too far." The chain deemed the dish too "culinary forward."

7) And all Olive Garden wants to do is update the damned dishware, but they can't. The frosted, "semi-translucent, plastic, flower-shaped salad bowl" that delivers unlimited refills has been in use for decades, and every time Olive Garden tests new bowls, diners revolt. "There is a lot of love for that bowl," said Dan Kiernan, executive vice president of operations for Olive Garden.

· Waiter, I'll Have the Crowd-Pleaser [WSJ]
· The Culinary Crimes of the Olive Garden: A Retrospective [-E-]
· All Olive Garden Coverage on Eater [-E-]