Monday, July 06, 2009

At Last: Answers To One of
Life's Enduring Mysteries...

...Why America is Addicted to the Olive Garden . I have a friend, a native of Italy, who winces when the restaurant's name comes up. She disdainfully refers to it as "frozen food." Not wanting to argue with her, I refrain from telling her that I actually don't mind the place so much. But then, I'm no foodie purist. To the contrary, I've often been accused of being more concerned about quantity than quality.

15 Comments:

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Kim said...

Hi, John. An Italian such as yourself surely wouldn't eschew Murray Hill for Olive Garden, though, right?

Interesting article. I think the most important point (and it translates to ANY industry) was that OG doesn't just treat their customers like family, they treat their employees the same way. I think that's a key to success in any industry. If the people who work for you are happy, they people who spend their money with you will be, too.

 
At 12:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kim, you're right. For every time I visit an Olive Garden (my fascination with it is partly over how long the wait always is, which has turned me off to the place) I visit my favorite place in Little Italy (Mama Santa's) perhaps 6 or 7 times. Mama Santa's happens to pull off a difficult trick: Cleveland's best Italian restaurant food (I think) also happens to be the most reasonably priced (although it's upped its prices a bit in the last year or 2).

As for your point about treating employees well, you're right, of course. I happened to read a piece in Fortune over the weekend about how the Marriott hotel chain, whose fundamental operating ethos has always been that very thing, is now being tested by the difficult economy.

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger bcwaller said...

Oh, you're all just doing this to make me lament the fact that my favorite neighborhood Italian place here in North Carolina closed.

On a completely different topic, my usability alarms went off with this. Each page had the same photos and design, meaning there were limited visual clues to tell you which page you were on out of the 5 of the article. Great journalism, poor design.

 
At 4:22 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I suppose NC has never been known as a hotbed of great Italian restaurants, although I did find a great one once in Chapel Hill, whose card I kept in my wallet as a reminder to return. Only I seem to have taken that card out of my wallet now. Whenever I find it (or remember the name through Google-enhanced memory exercises), I'll post the link...

Anyway, interesting point about the bad design. That's of a piece with the larger decline of Fast Company, which is still worth reading, but certainly not the same great mag it was under its founders, a couple of guys who left the Harvard Business Review to begin what for a time was easily among the 10 best mags in America.

Thanks for stopping by, Britta.

 
At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Roldo Bartimole said...

I think I was saved from starving in North Carolina by the Brooklyn Spaghetti House in Fayettville when I was at Fort Bragg. I wonder if it is still there.

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Salvation lies in cooking Italian, I think. That's why Marcella Hazan's masterpiece cookbook "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" can be found in every kitchen my family has. And I'm not even Italian!

Although my in-laws are. Today I'll be cooking my brother-in-law's Sicilian grandmother's spaghetti sauce. It cooks down all day long, and makes the whole house smell great.

I don't hate Olive Garden. I've had some very good meals there. My Dad liked the place a lot, it was always a treat. I understand the caveats, and local and home-made is almost always better, in any cuisine. The whole "slow food" and farmer's market movements are ones I am a part of, and strongly support. Alice Waters' ideas about buying local and seasonal, and cooking that way are also things I agree with.

And I'll take Olive Garden over fast food any day, if that's what's available.

 
At 11:22 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

No sign of it in a quick google search, Roldo. But then that's not too surprising, given that you're recalling a place you visited about a half century ago. Boy, would I love to see some photos of you in military gear. Do send those along so I can post them, will you?

Art, you know I thoroughly agree that "salvation" isn't too strong a word when it comes to Italian food. And I found your comment about cooking down the sauce to be especially resonant. I always assumed that to be the norm with Italian sauce, because that's what my mom always did. But I later learned (when visiting my dad's mom in Italy) that it's only the norm in southern Italy, where my mom's ancestors were from. My dad's side of the family, from central Italy, cooked sauce for far shorter periods. Anyone have anything to add to that, from either cookbook knowledge or personal experience?

 
At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Lou said...

Have to say, for Italian, Bruno's on West 41st is incredible.

As for which chains are in my closet; Bahama Breeze, steel drums, quasi-cajun/carib (though never having the Carib beer that is on the menu), Applebee's (not for the food/atmosphere/or anything other than the way they treat our kids) and finally, or I should say for starters, First Watch, consistent, relatively inexpensive, wifi, etc.

 
At 9:16 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Never heard of Bruno's much less tried it, so thanks for the tip, Lou. I'll be sure to check it out soon. I actually love Bahama Breeze, which doesn't have too much of a chainy feeling to me. Always get the same thing: salmon and their wonderful Cuban black bean soup. And I just had breakfast at First Watch this morning, as I do two or three times a week. They've won my business (despite being a chain) by offering free Plain Dealers and Wall Street Journals. All I have to buy on my own on those mornings is the NYTimes, and I'm fully up to speed on the world by 9 a.m. Not a bad deal.

Anyway, thanks for adding your two cents.

 
At 3:17 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

I've never heard of Bruno's either, though I'll have to give it a try. A little favorite place of mine on the West side is Bucci's Brick Oven in a nondescript strip mall in Middleburgh Hts. Really good and tasty Italian food at a very reasonable price.

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I love how this has taken a turn from a discussion of Olive Garden to recommendations on great but lesser-known Italian restaurants. Your recommendation is also duly noted, Miles. I'll be trying both Bruno's and Bucci's soon. I'm not so sure you can still eat Italian food anymore, Miles, in your slimmed-down condition.

As long as we're on this topic, let me mention three more things. A third great but little-known Italian restaurant in this region is Aldo's, on Memphis Ave. in Brooklyn. It too is located in a strip center, but the food (not cheap but not too expensive either) is divine. My favorite Italian place in Northeast Ohio, I should point out, is the sublime Gavi's in Willoughby. But it's high-priced, and perhaps more a place to visit a couple times a year on special occasions, at least for most folks.

Finally, when talk of chains arises, I feel the need to point everyone to a great website which I often check before making plans for dinner out: Cleveland Independents. It contains listings of more than 80 independently owned and operated restaurants in the region, of all price ranges. Just as I now order most of my books from small indy bookstores (like Mac's Backs in Coventry) rather than from a big chain or Amazon.com, I try to remember to patronize one of these restaurants at least half the time.

But please keep those recommendations of great Italian restaurants coming.

www.clevelandindependents.com

 
At 5:19 PM, Blogger Lisa Hong said...

Yesterday, while waiting for my Tuesday 2-for-1 humongous pizzas at Whole Foods, I wandered over to the weekly cooking demo. WOW! They're showcasing local chefs for the next couple months, and yesterday Sergio (of Sergio's and Sarava) mesmerized and entertained the class, preparing 3 dishes in an hour. $5 scores you samples.

WF is a chain, and pricey, but they've created an irresistible (to me) food experience. Quality, presentation, atmosphere; their employees are passionate about food!

 
At 9:48 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

How cool to see your name here, Lisa. The only thing we like better around here than first-time commenters is first-timers we actually know.

I'm glad you mention that example, because I've been quick to write off Whole Foods for its high prices (I've mentioned here before that their nickname is Whole Paycheck). But the example you use is a great way to bond with their local neighborhood. It runs rings around the idiotic corporate-imposed methods that chains such as Applebee's (which happens to be just across the street from Whole Foods) use to pretend some deeper bond with their locality: photos of the local firemen, for instance. Sorry, Applebee's, but that doesn't cut it, nor does it make me forget you're a chain without any particular roots in my neighborhood. You'll have to find another way to connect with me than through the local firehouse.

Anyway, thanks again for stopping by, Lisa. Here's hoping you'll come back and join more conversations.

 
At 11:33 AM, Blogger Kim said...

Gotta chime in from the southern reaches of NE Ohio. You want good local Italian? Youngstown is tough to beat, from Caffe Capri to Salvatores... when they aren't closing steel mills (that's so 1970) they are feeding the locals. That has been one pleasant surprise to moving this way~ the food.

 
At 11:37 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Oh man, am I glad you mentioned Cafe Capri (in Boardman). It may be the best Italian meal I've had in years. Just phenomenal. The atmosphere and service are as good as the food. And prices are pretty reasonable. I've also had the good fortune to eat several times at Anthony's on the River in Youngstown, which is almost as good. What do you think about that place, Kim? And where will I find Salvatore's? Love to try that also.

 

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