The Olive Garden Prejudice

Italian food? Nah.

In the US, we have this huge, corporate restaurant chain called “The Olive Garden.” They reportedly serve “Italian food.” Those of us who’ve spent time in Italy have learned that there is no such thing as “Italian food.” We have a very low opinion of the Olive Garden.

How did this come to be? Some people like the Olive Garden. When they finally come back from their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy they might boast, “America has the best Italian food!”

Of course, they’re right. Italy has Tuscan cuisine or Ligurian cuisine. There’s no real codified Italian cuisine. We’ve done that for them; in Italy the cuisine is regional. Therein lies the joy Italian foodie travel; you often eat entirely different local foods when you find a restaurant after a 30 minute train ride.

Yes, sometimes the cuisine changes radically within a region; the Lunigiana has widely eaten traditional foods, like panigacci, that are only found in a couple of small towns. The town of Bigliolo, within the Lunigiana, has a special bean that people drive across Tuscany to buy. It’s as confusing as it is fun to shop in Italy.

But all that aside, we pretentious Italophiles loath the corporate, toned-down-for-Americans mush that comes out of Olive Garden Kitchens. It’s not (only) that it’s not good food; it misrepresents the country it tries to mimic.

Perhaps it’s all because we Americans have a long heritage of making mush out of (usually other people’s) things. In Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) Bill Buford reminds us that in the original, 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking, you were instructed to cook spaghetti for an hour and then you rinse it. I can clearly hear the shudder of Italians reading this, and I’m in California. Yuck.

So that’s why people make fun of Olive Garden. It’s faux Italian. Italian for people who’ve never been to Italy. That’s why folks like Michael of Discover Soriano can get such a kick out of A little more Olive Gardening Laughter…

Yes, there is a considerable corporate effort to fool you about Italy and the Italian language if you haven’t been to Italy.

I mean, it really irks me to go into a place, order a stuffed pizza the Italians call “calzone,” which is pronounced Caltz-O-nay with a particular flare the folks from the boot pull off very well.

After putting in your order, the pizza babe will invariably look at you as if your nose has fallen off into the green leafy stuff in the salad bar and she’s left staring at the bloody stump.

“Huh?” she says, wrinkling her nose, then twitching it back and forth to make sure it works.

You repeat the word “calzone” carefully. Several times.

Finally a ripple of understanding lights up her baby blues. “Ah, cal-zone!” she says as if we have just exited the Oregon zone going south and we are now in the Cal-zone.

Why do we have to make it so difficult? Why do we make people say “latte” when they want a cafe latte? You want milk, order a latte. You want coffee in it, order a cafe latte. Why is that so hard?

Is there a conspiracy to make us look like idiots when we travel? Is Monty Python at play in the vast spaghetti fields of our Lord?

Just for the record, I think it’s ok to usurp someone’s food and make it your own. We did that with pizza. We made the crust into cardboard (but really big, fat, cardboard) and slathered on a whole lotta stuff that softens it all up. It’s a whole different thing.

But at least we pronounce the zz’s in pizza properly. You can go to Italy and say “pizza” like an American and folks at the pizzeria will know exactly what you want.

Say “cal-zone” though, and they’ll just stare at you.

Then they’ll start looking for your nose in the insalata verde.

The Olive Garden Prejudice originally appeared on , updated: Mar 15, 2017 © .

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