I’ve never had a problem with Olive Garden in regards to their food or their business practices. I’ve always found Olive Garden restaurants to be a comfortable place to have an inoffensive meal at a fair price. It seems that only recently did it come into fashion to outright mock the restaurant, which I can only assume is due to the hatchet job by John Oliver a few years back. No salt when boiling pasta? The horror!
I always found it strange that Olive Garden got picked on considering other turn and burn Italian restaurant chains like The Old Spaghetti Factory, where I used to work, were far worse. Not only did the restaurant actively work against the servers to prevent good service with only one drink station for a restaurant that’s as big as a factory, but the food was so simplistic that I could forget to order something, remember at the eleventh hour, call for it on the fly and still get it out on time with the rest of the entrees. It was literally a matter of slopping sauces on precooked food, which is necessary when the restaurant expects you to serve three parties of twenty people each…at the same time! So here’s another national chain Italian food restaurant that serves ostensibly worse food, but it doesn’t get taken down by comedians on TV because The Old Spaghetti Factory doesn’t have the same kind of marketing budget and doesn’t have the same mindshare as the Olive Garden.
All things being equal, however, the John Oliver hit piece was just an insult to an injury being suffered in a more vital area: sales. The last couple of years weren’t looking good for Darden Restaurants, with a prevailing downward trend since 2014 and perhaps even beyond. I can still remember reading about the silly gimmicks they were trying to generate buzz, like the Never Ending Pasta Passes that offered unlimited pasta bowls for seven weeks for just $100. Only recently, however, has Darden Restaurants begun to right the ship, and sales are steadily climbing. That’s because like any company with flagging sales, Darden Restaurants tries new things and sees what works.
I live near one of the Olive Garden test locations, so I get a sneak peek at what could be coming down the pipe to the rest of the chain. Sometimes it’s a new schedule for their standard offerings, like getting the Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion months earlier than normal. Sometimes it’s extending proven promotions to traditional offerings, like a Never Ending Classic Menu. You like the lasagna? How much more would you like it if it never ended? Sometimes I also get to experience new entrees. And sometimes those entrees are horrific.
When you own a restaurant, you only want to have as many ingredients as you know you can sell. Food has a short shelf life. A way to guarantee that it doesn’t rot is to keep your ingredient list short and then build a menu off that list. While this is good for the restaurant, it can feel like a lack of variety for the customers. That’s when it’s time to get creative! But creativity also has its limits, and when it’s not done well, it can backfire. So rather than making customers forget the limits of the ingredients, the new creation only serves to highlight the limitations. If we look at the monstrosities that Taco Bell keeps putting out, then we can see how there are only so many combinations five ingredients can create. The Olive Garden is hitting that wall.
I don’t know if Chef Romana Neri is still with the company or if she’s even still alive, but this entrée could not have come out of her kitchen. More likely, this came out of the marketing department. The Deep Dish Spaghetti Pie is basically just that: spaghetti shaped into a pie wedge, baked with cheese, and then coated with either meat or alfredo sauce. The cheese melts through the pasta, acting like an edible glue so that the wedge maintains its shape. So if you’re thinking that it’s just spaghetti and meatballs but in pie shape, then you’re not far off.
At first bite, it tastes like pizza. I’m not sure if that’s because they bake it in the same oven and I’m tasting some residual pizza flavor or if there’s pizza sauce slathered on top of the wedge beneath the meat sauce. In either case, the flavor is not unpleasant. It does feel like a strange way to eat spaghetti, though. It just feels foreign, like if they were to toss the whole dish into a blender and offer it to me as a smoothie. It would probably taste the same, but the experience would be revolting. In its current incarnation, it’s just a little strange.
For my part, I couldn’t finish the dish. It wasn’t because I didn’t have the appetite, but rather the cheese that holds the wedge together is simply too much. The flavor was overpowering. So I don’t think I’ll be ordering this entrée again. Hopefully no one else will have the opportunity to do so either.
And I certainly hope the people in marketing at Darden don’t get any ideas about the smoothie.