An extensive correction of the Olive Garden Menu, Part 3

Part 3! Now we’re into the section of the menu that is divided up by proteins: seafood, chicken, beef and pork. Some of these dishes I’ve already covered, which is handy, and also makes the menu even weirder, and brings to mind a question – what is the function of the menu? The answer presented by Olive Garden1 seems to be that it’s like a presentation of options and more an index – this is how to find what you want, whether you look it up by ingredient or by course (method is, of course, completely absent, because most of the actual food-cookery is done completely offsite, so to be honest the menu would have to list as method either “fried” “boiled to death” “grilled to death” or “reheated”). It’s something like a phone book for the foods of the Olive Garden, which isn’t the same compulsively-rearranged set of the same ingredients as other fast-casual places2.

Nevertheless, it makes my job of correcting this stuff a lot easier.

Anyway, onto the rest of the directory!

Salmon Bruschetta
The menu says: “Grilled salmon filet topped with bruschetta tomatoes and basil pesto, served on seafod risotto with sauteed shrimp”
The correct answer: I have long since given up the fight for the definition bruschetta3, but this is especially egregious. In any event, I have no idea what the “seafood risotto” would be like, either (my best guess would be that’s it’s a pilaf, not a risotto at all, or that even if it is prepared like a risotto in the first place, it’s then shipped to the constituent restaurants in a bag), but that’s all sort of beside the point. This dish is a mess. It’s got too many things going on – bruschetta tomatoes and pesto and risotto and whatever is in the risotto to make it a “seafood” risotto and salmon and shrimp. It’s a crazy mess that deserves to be trashed. TRASH IT.

Baked Parmesan Shrimp
The menu says: “Ziti pasta and succulent shrimp baked in a creamy parmesan sauce, topped with toasted parmesan breadcrumbs and tomatoes”
The correct answer: While it’s true that baked ziti is a great thing, and that lasagna4 is similarly impossible to screw up, this combines the worst ideas of both, and if the end result is anything like edible, I would not be able to tell you how or why. The big problem here is the idea that there needs to be all this shrimp on the menu, here. I love shrimp. Good shrimp, bad shrimp, elevated shrimp, frozen cocktail shrimp, day-old gas station shrimp, whatever. I’ll eat any shrimp you have, provided they aren’t fucked with to the point of rubbery nonsense. There is no way that these poor shrimp survive this transition. If you want to have a baked ziti alfredo, leave the shrimp out of it. Leave the shrimp out of most things, really, but especially out of this thing in particular. LEAVE IT OUT.

Seafood Alfredo
The menu says: Creamy, homemade fettuccine alfredo tossed with succulent, sauteed shrimp and scallops.
The correct answer: I will not acknowledge whatever Olive Garden has done to wthe bay scallops in this dish. Even for bay scallops (which have scant reason to exist in the first place), it can only be called cruel and unusual, and I will not abet this behavior.

Pappardelle Pescatore
The menu says: “A traditional, coastal Italian dish with sauteed shrimp, bay scallops and clams tossed in a creamy, red pepper seafood sauce. Served with fresh asparagus, tomatoes and pappardelle pasta.”
The correct answer: Sigh. OK. There should not be scallops again, so we will pretend there aren’t. This leaves a problem: long pasta with clams is a completely traditional (and delicious) thing, and most of this dish is that. I can’t imagine why the sauce is “creamy” other than the menu designer is fucked. So make it not creamy. Do pappardelle with clams with red pepper seafood sauce (which really should be clam sauce, but I guess I don’t know which “seafood” they’re using here, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). The accompaniments are good, the dish is much better. See how little this has to hurt, Olive Garden?

Baked Tilapia with Shrimp
This dish has already been covered, and is still stupid.

Herb-grilled Salmon
This dish has also been covered, and compared to the bruschetta/risotto/Frankenstein’s salmon dish above, is practically dinner at Le Bernardin.

Shrimp Carbonara
The menu says: “Sauteed shrimp and bucatini pasta tossed in a creamy carbonara sauce with bacon and roasted peppers”
The correct answer: A personal aside – I make carbonara for myself about once a fortnight. Some bacon, a couple of eggs, some pasta (I tend to use short pasta because I like it that way, but it’s traditionally a dish for long pasta, which I freely acknowledge), some parmesan cheese. It’s dead easy, takes about fifteen minutes from start to finish, and requires minimal cleanup, since the only thing you’ve done in one pan is boil water. Thus every time I have to consider the casual-Italian-American carbonara, which is actually “alfredo sauce with stuff in it,” I have a brief moment of confusion. Anyway, that, like the “bruschetta” fight, is one that has long been lost, but here I sit trying to pass any kind of judgement. The truth is, though, that this is probably pretty good, and I’m inclined to keep it. Alfredo sauce, shrimp, bacon, if you can con some red pepper flakes out of your waiter, it’d probably even be recommendable.

Shrimp Alfredo
The menu says: “Creamy, homemade fettuccine alfredo tossed with sauteed shrimp”

Grilled Chicken Toscano
The menu says: “Grilled chicken breasts brushed with a sweet red wine sauce. Served with fresh spinach and creamy parmesan risotto with tomatoes.”
The correct answer: No violence done against chicken is then going to be corrected by candying it. This is hideous. KILL IT WITH FIRE.

Smoked Mozzarella Chicken
The menu says: “Chicken breast tenderloins sauteed with roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and ziti pasta in a rich and creamy smoked mozzarella cheese sauce”
The correct answer: Fun fact: what is often sold as “chicken tenderloins” (the basis for “chicken tenders”) are usually just pieces of the chicken breast – the tenderloin is a strip of meat under the breast against the ribcage, and there’s only two of them per chicken, and its just not economical to sell the proper cut due to its relative scarcity. Anyway. This is a slightly better baked ziti in cheese sauce than the shrimp one, and I’m inclined to let it live, but this may be because I’m still furious over the “Grilled Chicken Toscano”

Chicken Scampi
The menu says: “Crisp bell peppers and red onions sauteed with chicken tenderloins in a  creamy scampi sauce. Served over angel hair pasta.”
The correct answer: the etymological and culinary journey of “scampi” from being a word describing the animal (shrimp) in its cooked state to being a method of preparation is one of those things that represents an object lesson in the difference between Italian and Italian-American food. This isn’t really indicative of an actual scampi (the method) preparation6, which is a shame, because the peppers and onions and the chicken tenders tossed in garlic butter over angel hair sounds pretty good. They should buy back the scampi recipe from Red Lobster and use it here.

Chicken Alfredo
The menu says: “Sliced grilled chicken and our signature, homemade alfredo sauce over fettuccine pasta.”
The correct answer: Remember, like, ten seconds ago when I was super-angry that the shrimp alfredo dish wasn’t given better placement on the menu? Yeah, I wouldn’t be mad if they shot this dish in the head then buried it. That is the difference between bad shrimp and bad chicken – bad shrimp is pretty good and easy to make, bad chicken is unforgivable.

Chicken Marsala
The menu says: “Sauteed chicken breasts in a savory sauce of mushrooms, garlic and marsala wine. Served with a blend of roasted potatoes.”
The correct answer: I wonder if it’s really marsala wine? Are they allowed to say it is if it isn’t? I guess marsala is pretty cheap. Anyway: chicken marsala must be a godsend to Olive Garden. It’s so easy to make, so hard to make badly, and both keeps and travels well. Maybe they could just fold up and reopen as a breadstick, soup and chicken marsala stand. Have I already used that joke? I feel like I have. If I have, pretend I haven’t and we’ll all be super-happy.

Chicken and Shrimp Carbonara
The menu says: “Sauteed chicken, shrimp and bucatini pasta tossed in a creamy carbonara sauce with bacon and roasted red peppers”
The correct answer: Jesus. There are an awful lot of dishes on the menu that are completely identical to other another dish but with chicken on it. At this point I think they’re reading my mind, and they’re adding dishes like this just to spite me. Well it works. I am full of spite. I won’t cut off my nose, however, I’d just like to cut off this dish. CUT IT OFF.

Stuffed Chicken Marsala
The menu says: “Creamy marsala wine sauce with mushrooms over an oven-roasted chicken breast, stuffed with Italian cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes. Served with garlic-parmesan mashed potatotes.”
The correct answer: What, did you run out of ideas and just start smashing menu items together at random? What the hell is wrong with you people? Stop doing this.

Lasagna Primavera with Grilled Chicken
The menu says: “Hand-folded lasagna filled with zucchini, squash and bell peppers. Topped with a tomato-basil sauce, grilled chicken and a creamy parmesan drizzle.”
The correct answer: I suppose earlier, when i said that the other lasagna primavera dish was the only time they used the tomato-basil sauce and the parmesan drizzle, I was wrong. They also use it in this dish, which is, once again, the exact same dish with chicken on it. This is exhausting.

Chicken Abruzzi
A refuge from the “lighter faire” menu. Still dumb.

Garlic Rosemary Chicken
Also a refuge. Also dumb.

Chicken Carbonara
The menu says: “Sauteed chicken and bucatini pasta tossed in a creamy carbonara sauce with bacon and roasted red peppers”
The correct answer: Oh go to hell.

Beef & Pork
Uh. Before we get started, I’m just going to go ahead and let you all know: this menu section is pretty specifically titled “beef & pork.” Like, it says right there on the menu “beef & pork.” It’s printed in words, in English, right there. It’s completely unambiguous what the theme of this menu section is. It doesn’t say “maybe some pork” or “could be a pork in here.” It says “beef & pork.” So behold: the four beef dishes that do not, in fact, contain any pork. Not one iota. It’s not even prepared on pork-preparing equipment, because there is no pork to prepare. There is no pork. No pork anywhere7.

Braised Beef & Tortelloni
The menu says: “Tender sliced short ribs and portobello mushrooms tossed with asiago-filled tortelloni in a basil-marsala sauce”
The correct answer: Boy, this does sound good, doesn’t it? I’d prefer a better mushroom, but that seems like needless quibbling when there’s basically nothing to change, here.

Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo
The menu says: “Grileld steak medallions over fettuccine alfredo tossed with gorgonzola cheese and fresh spinach. Finished with a balsamic drizzle and sun-dried tomatoes”
The correct answer: Of all the steak dishes, this is the one that appeals to me the most, mostly because even cheap balsamic is pretty good, and gorgonzola cheese is the savior of many, many otherwise-bland dishes. It’s alfredo again, but if it’s steak you’re after, this is probably the one to go with. Although really, you should just get the short ribs anyway. They’re probably way better.

Parmesan Crusted Filet
The menu says: “6 oz premium center cut filet, grilled to perfection and topped with a creamy parmesan-alfredo crust. Served with a blend of roasted potatoes.”
The correct answer: Here’s something that just occurred to me: I wonder if, somewhere in the menu conception, it was decided that every single dish must also have a sauce? Because that’s what makes this dish so baffling. I understand the utility of having a steak dish on the menu – there are some people who expect a steak when they go out to dinner, and they make up not only a high percentage of customers, but a high percentage of customers who are willing to pay a lot of money, so you have to appease them. And so a steak with potatoes seems like the kind of thing you could just slap up on the menu and never think about it again. So why the parmesan breadcrumbs and the alfredo sauce? It’s just a really odd set of decisions that I can’t imagine the thought process behind, unless it was, at one point (and may even still be) mandatory that every single item also have a sauce8. Seriously. What the hell? Anyway, get rid of this stupid dish and see below.

Steak Toscano
The menu says: “Grilled 12 oz choice center cut New York strip steak brushed with Italian herbs and extra-virgin olive oil. Served with garlic parmesan mashed potatoes.”
The correct answer: And now you see why I said “at one point” in the rule above – clearly whatever that was, they’re over it. And, again, while I see you need a steak, I think you don’t actually need a steak and then also another steak for fucking weirdos. So just do this one, but offer it in 6 oz or 12 oz. If they want alfredo sauce dumped on it, they can ask. You sell whole boats of it for breadsticks, I’m sure you can find a ladle or something.

And that does it! Well, I mean, there are also desserts and a kids menu but 1) their desserts are going to be manufactured elsewhere anyway, and that’s a problem endemic to restaurants of a bunch of different types and 2) the problems with kids menus are beyond my fixing. Hopefully any Darden executives who’ve read this decide to take my suggestions. I’m also available to rewrite your terrible menu copy for a one-time payment of $50,000. If you think about it, it’s actually quite a bargain.

1 to be fair, this is in no way singular to Olive Garden, and is also the answer presented by, say, Applebees or, most egregiously, the Cheesecake Factory.
2 you’ll remember this is actually a point of contention in the Starboard Value presentation, in fact – they use too many ingredients, and too few of them are repeated.
3 traditionally it describes the bread, which is “brushed” with olive oil and rubbed with a garlic clove. The tomatoes and suchlike are condiment for the grilled bread, not the dish itself. This probably has more to do with this country thinking of bread as an unimportant “filler” item rather than real food to be prepared with care, which is another blog post for another time, I’m afraid.
4 this is similar, at least in its genesis, albeit not in its actual form, to a lasagna made with bechamel, which is a perfectly fine dish that they also bastardized for their vegetable lasagna earlier in the menu.
5 this whole category exists in the realm of my aforestated distaste for their indifferently-prepared, unrecommendable “grilled” chicken
6 ironically, for the fast-casual version of that you’d have to go to Red Lobster. That specific thing – Red Lobster shrimp scampi – spent a significant portion of my youth as “my favorite thing to eat in a restaurant.”
7 I do, however, distinctly remember them having a mixed grill somewhere on their menu at one point, because I remember ordering it. I have no idea what happened to it, but it was also the end of my war on their chicken breasts, by dint of being the last time I ate one.
8 of course, it then becomes baffling why you wouln’t use a wine sauce or demi or something, but I suppose it’s far too late to be asking these types of questions.

An Extensive Correction of the Olive Garden Menu Part 2

Last time, we covered the appetizers, the small plates, the soups and the salads. This time we delve into the more substantial1 realm of the mains.

Cucina Mia

This is a complicated chart, whereby you can assemble a pasta dish. It looks like this:
The correct answer: Pasta shape is one of those things that I’m usually pretty willing to go a long way with keeping straight. Different shapes have different jobs, and interact with sauces differently. When you look at dishes from Italy, you can even tell something about the way they’re eaten by the shape of the pasta. This is, however, not Italy. This is the Olive Garden. And the interchangeability of the items on this list means that the non-standard shapes are being prized for the likelihood that someone is going to have to explain it. Because if you don’t know what it is, it must be authentic, right? Similarly, the sauces are character-free: cheese sauce, three different tomato sauces – two marinaras and one pomodoro2 and a cream sauce that has tomatoes in it. I should never, ever have to say “do I prefer cheese sauce or zucchini on my cavatelli.” And then you get to put a meat on it, provided that meat is either “meatballs” “lesser meatballs” or “shrimp”. Skip the whole thing, and stop encouraging people to think of the food in your restaurant as modular. It’s good for pizza places, burger places, and nowhere else.

Cucina Classica
These, at last, are actual dishes that you can order and the kitchen will prepare for you that don’t require you to look at a diagram full of weird names that are either misleading (if you know the dishes they actually refer to) or meaningless (if you’ve never heard of them, the Olive Garden definition is not liable to help you get by in life).

Tour of Italy
The menu says: “Three OG classics all on one plate! Chicken Parmigiana, Lasagna Classico and our famous Fettuccine Alfredo
The correct answer: I can’t help but be charmed by the use of “OG” to mean Olive Garden, and not its slang usage, which is a callback to Ice-T’s album The OG: Original Gangsta. It made me misread this menu item, originally, as “Three Original Gangsta classics…” Which is even weirder when you consider the “…you’re family”/Godfather-ish pre-existing gangster condition. Anyway, this is probably necessary on a menu like this one, and the individual components will get their assessment below, so it’s fine. Probably could use an item description rewrite, though.

Chicken Parmigiana
The menu says: “Homemade marinara and melted Italian cheeses over our lightly fried parmesan-breaded chicken breasts. Served with a side of spaghetti.”
The correct answer: The first of the OG OG dishes, to appear solo, chicken pargiana is not as good as veal parmigiana (which does not appear on the menu at Olive Garden, which is probably a vestige of the anti-veal crusade) or well-prepared eggplant parmigiana (which is a few slots down on the menu). Now, since this is Olive Garden, the eggplant parmigiana is likely to be indifferently prepared, but then so, for that matter, is the chicken parmigiana. So just avoid them altogether, even if something like insane tradition requires them to hold their place on the menu. I guess.

Five-Cheese Ziti al Forno
The menu says: “An indulgent blend of Italian cheeses, ziti pasta and our five-cheese marinara sauce baked golden brown”
The correct answer: Like chicken parmigiana, there’s a place for baked ziti on any Italian-American menu. I know, mentally, that the “five-cheese marinara” is just regular marinara with cheese stirred into it, but every time I read it I think that, like, the cheese is part of the sauce-making process, which is so gross. Anyway. This is fine.

Spaghetti and Meat Sauce
The menu says: “Our traditional meat sauce is homemade with pan-seared beef, Italian sausage and seasoned with garlic and herbs”
The correct answer: This is another menu-copy quibble, but when you describe a cut of meat as “seared,” you are generally referring to a specific cooking method – that is, cooking just the outer part so you get some of that tasty, tasty maillard reaction without sacrificing any of the juicy interior to the harsh drying effects of heat. That’s…not what happens to meat when you make meat sauce. Anyway, this dish is pedestrian, and pretty unnecessary. Considering the number of ways you can consume meat and pasta together here, the sloppy-joe sauce really isn’t the way to go. On the one hand, it seems so basic and essential it would be impossible not to cut it. On the other hand, there’s no way to make it anything but gross, so out it goes. CUT IT OUT.

Spaghetti and Meatballs/Sausage/Chicken Meatballs
The menu says: “Traditional meat sauce seasoned with garlic and herbs over spaghetti with meatballs/sausage/chicken meatballs”
The correct answer: These are three different menu items, but they’re all basically the same: you can take your spaghetti and your meat sauce and add an additional bit of ground-up animal. The change here is that while these things may seem essential, there’s no reason for it to be their meat sauce – their marinara is a sugary mess, but at least it doesn’t mean that there are two cheap, mistreated pieces of animal flesh involved in the transaction. Change the sauce to their marinara sauce and pretend this horrible thing never happened to anybody.

Lasagna Classico
The menu says: “Prepared fresh daily with layers of pasta, Italian cheeses and our homemade meat sauce”
The correct answer: Once again, my only quibbles are with the name and the menu copy. Can’t argue with lasagna in an Italian-American restaurant, I just think that “Classico” is a dumb thing to append to anything’s name, and that you don’t need to go to the same kinds of lengths to make sure that we know you made it. The lasagna is another of the things that, in light of the “too much cooking happens in the kitchens” edict of Starboard Value, I wouldn’t be surprised to see change drastically. Which doesn’t really matter to me, as I wasn’t about to eat any of it anyway.

Eggplant Parmigiana
The menu says: “Fresh eggplant, hand-breaded and lightly fried, topped with homemade marinara and melted mozzarella cheese. Served with spaghetti.”
The correct answer: Eggplant is an underestimated temperamental bitch of a vegetable to get to work the way it’s supposed to, and my experience with chain restaurant eggplant (which is, admittedly, as little as I can get away with) has been that they don’t even try. I would recommend playing up the diavolo sauce and ditching eggplant entirely, because nobody wants a watery rubber disc that’s “lightly” fried. Furthermore, the fact that every fried dish is described as “lightly” fried is starting to freak me right the hell out, because I have absolutely no idea what it means. It could be lightly breaded, or lightly battered, or battered with a light batter, but something is either fried or it isn’t. Seriously. This is baffling.

Ravioli de Portabello
The menu says: “Ravioli filled with flavorful portobello mushrooms, topped with a rich and creamy smoked cheese and sun-dried tomato sauce”
The correct answer: I can’t yell too much about mushroom ravioli. Vegetarians probably eat at Olive Garden sometimes, and maybe they don’t want soup3. Nevertheless, it would probably be pretty cool if you could make “flavorful” in the description less of an outright lie, given that what you’re talking about is almost certainly watery, rubbery mushrooms. To skip this over altogether, consider squash ravioli, which are naturally more flavorful (even indifferently-handled winter squash has more innate flavor that the vastly-overrated portobello mushroom, which are usually grown for size rather than flavor, and thus have too high a water content to be anything but uninspiring) and would also win you points with the non-carnivores, as it’s something you don’t see in chain restaurants very often, and it’s just as traditional.

Fettucine Alfredo
The menu says: “Made fresh daily in our kitchen with parmesan cheese, fresh cream and garlic. Served over fettucine pasta”
The correct answer: Sigh. Well, alfredo sauce is hard to make well, but almost impossible to make in a form that doesn’t at least taste kind of good. And it would be almost impossible to say, in good conscience, that it should be elided. So I guess it stays, but man it would be necessary to salt the damn pasta water. This dish would also make me very grateful to those pepper grinders they carry from table to table.

Cheese Ravioli
The menu says: “Traditional cheese-filled ravioli with your choice of our homemade marinara or meat sauce, topped with melted Italian cheeses”
The correct answer: It’s fine. Like with the fettucine alfredo or the lasagna, there’s no way to get worked up over this. It’s probably necessary.

Lighter Italian Faire
Chicken Abruzzi
The menu says: “Tender, grilled chicken breast in a savory broth simmered with cannellini beans, fresh kale and garden vegetables”
The correct answer: “Abruzzi” means, theoretically, “in the style of abruzzo, a coastal region in the middle of Italy that is rightfully known for its food, albeit not any specific means of preparation” but I’ll be dipped if I have any idea what it means here in the name of this dish. So I guess I can’t quibble with either the name or the recipe, it just seems like “chicken and beans and kale” is a weird dish that you don’t need4. SNIP IT OUT.

Herb-Grilled Salmon
The menu says: “Grilled salmon filet brushed with Italian herbs and extra-virgin olive oil. Served with lightly seasoned, steamed broccoli”
The correct answer: I get it. You have to have a fish entree on your menu. Salmon is about as Italian as my Aunt Fanny5, but it’s cheap and easy to find, so we can probably fold it into “Italian-American” if we squint. “Cod” or “Branzino” probably doesn’t sell as well anyway. Furthermore, this is the entree for dieters. It’s the only entree in this section I would keep (although I really would urge another fish, because there’s no way this tastes good), but not because I like it, more as a nod to the realities of restaurant menus.

Garlic Rosemary Chicken
The menu says: “Caramelized garlic cloves and rosemary top marinated grilled chicken breasts. Served with garlic-mashed potatoes and fresh spinach.”
The correct answer: This whole dish is just an awful idea. In theory, this is also something that people can (and, honestly, should) make at home, where they can treat the chicken better. But these grilled chicken breasts are cooked for all restaurant purposes and then reheated for the entree, and therefore are, as a result, dry hockey pucks of dessicated bird flesh. I get that “grilled chicken breast” seems as necessary on a menu as salmon, but maybe you could make that your selling point: “we care so much about food that we don’t have obligatory dumb bullshit that we can’t possibly make as well as you can at home.” But this dish is designed to satisfy no one, and basically has no chance of being anything other than indifferently awful. Also, I’ve cooked garlic in hundreds of dishes, in dozens of different ways, and I have no idea what the fuck “caramelized garlic cloves” would even be. They’re probably burnt. Get them away from my food.

Lasagna Primavera
The menu says: “Vegetable lasagna layered with fresh zucchini, squash, bell peppers and homemade tomato-basil sauce. Topped with tender grilled chicken and a creamy parmesan drizzle”
The correct answer: A vegetable lasagna seems like a reasonable thing to have, except even if you hold the (once again) overcooked chicken, you still have the “creamy parmesan drizzle.” From a purely logistical standpoint, though, unless you take my earlier suggestion and start serving squash ravioli, this requires an ingredient (squash) and a sauce (tomato basil), neither of which appear on the menu again, and this should just be completely nixed. NIX IT.

Baked Tilapia with Shrimp
The menu says: “Delicate white fish and shrimp baked with a flavorful white wine sauce and served with steamed, garlic broccoli”
The correct answer: I’m actually not as hard on tilapia as other people that jabber incessantly about food. I like it. It’s a useful, moderate fish that you can do a lot of stuff with. What you can’t really do with talipia is just bake it and slap it on a plate – it’s mild, it’s watery, and it doesn’t bring enough to stand up to that sort of thing. Adding shrimp is just confusing matters – the shrimp have many of the same problems, but they’re also forcing the tilapia to share billing, which is further wasting the tilapia, which you’re only buying to bury under a mound of shrimp. Toss the whole thing out and save it for another application. TOSS IT.

GUYS. THERE’S GOING TO BE ANOTHER PART TO THIS. THIS IS GOING TO CONTINUE. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? Well, better start working on your belief muscles, because this is going to a third part. Come back next time for a run at the next set of dishes. Maybe this makes it easier to understand what Starboard Value means when it talks about an impossible depth of menu.

1 before you think I need to say something about a pun here, look again: that’s a literally correct usage of that word.
2 “marinara” means “like the mariners did it”, and is long-cooked. “pomodoro” means “tomato” and is generally cooked briefly
3 although, honestly, given how often that the “vegetarian” option on any given menu means “the portobello mushroom version of another menu item*”, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t just stick to the soup, especially because that would leave more room for breadsticks.
*see also: ubiquitous and lazy portobello sandwiches/burgers
4 although, full disclosure, it’s also the most like a dish I would actually make for myself.
5 who does not exist and is, therefore, not at all Italian
6 dip it in egg, cover it in panko and black pepper, and serve it over pasta with some grape tomatoes and some basil and you have something fairly Italian, and also completely delicious.

An Extensive Correction of the Olive Garden Menu Part 1

So the people at Starboard Value want to somehow inject real food into the corporate-decided menu of the Olive Garden. Great! If there’s two things I love, it’s telling people they’re wrong and impossible-to-solve challenges so, obviously, this is right up my alley. So let’s look at what we’ve got here, shall we?

I’m going with the dinner menu, basically because everything on the lunch menu is already on the dinner menu.

Create a Sampler Italiano
The menu says: “Choose from: calamari, stuffed mushrooms, fried zucchini, chicken fingers, fried mozzarella or toasted beef and pork ravioli”
The correct answer: Boy oh boy this is an auspicious place to start. First of all: get rid of the cheese sticks and the chicken fingers. You are not a sports bar, and there are two reasons for chicken fingers: either you are 8, or you have had so many alcoholic beverages that you are, mentally, 8. Either way, they have no place on the menu. Cheese sticks are closer to acceptable, but just because you have a deep fryer doesn’t mean this is a good use for them. Second of all, this thing has the dumbest name I’ve ever seen. It’s just a sampler. “Create” is an awfully elevated verb for what you’re doing with it, but it can stay because it’s nowhere near the goddamn linguistic crime that “Italiano” appended to the end of this full-sentence dish title is. Just call it a fucking appetizer sampler. We’re already in the door at Olive Garden, you don’t need to do things like end your dishes’ names with “Italiano” to remind us that we’re family. Cripes.

Classic Calamari
The menu says: “Tender classic calamari, lightly breaded and fried. Served with parmesan-peppercorn and marinara sauces.”
The correct answer: It’s been a long time since I had the parmesan-peppercorn sauce (which I think is also sometimes a salad dressing? Or I’m thinking of somewhere else?), but I would bet that I remember it accurately as ranch dressing with the vaguest sense that something like parmesan cheese was once somewhere near it. Don’t dip squid in that. Their marinara sauce is its own problem, and not one that we’re going to address here, but don’t dip squid in that either. Without the sauces, this appetizer has nothing except the squid themselves. Since these are the non-spicy ones, this gets thrown out. NEXT.

Spicy Calamari
The menu says: “Spicy calamari, lightly breaded and fried with cherry pepper slices and red pepper flakes. Served with parmesan-peppercorn and marinara sauces.”
The correct answer: Throw out the sauces again and you have a perfectly serviceable calamari appetizer. So do that, and devote all of your calamari resources to this one, and not that other stupid one. If people don’t like spicy food, they can order something else. If they like spicy food and can’t eat anything but calamari, they are weird people who should probably never have left their bubble in the first place.

The menu says: “A traditional topping of roma tomatoes, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil. Served with toasted ciabatta bread.”
The correct answer: not a whole to do here. It’s bad tomatoes and bad bread, but it’s still better than, say, the non-spicy calamari, and it isn’t a goddamn chicken finger. Plus, people probably expect to see it here on the menu. Sigh.

Classic Shrimp Scampi Fritta
The menu says: “Lightly breaded and fried shrimp, tossed with a garlic and white wine butter sauce”
The correct answer: this is popcorn shrimp with butter and garlic salt. When you shared purveyors with Red Lobster, this may have been a good idea, but as it is, it’s an abomination, and needs badly to be purged. PURGE IT.

Spicy Shrimp Scampi Fritta
The menu says: “Lightly breaded and fried shrimp, tossed with a spicy cherry pepper sauce”
The correct answer: While it was true that the spicy calamari was better than the bland calamari, that does not hold here. This is, if possible, even dumber, because it shows that they’re treating their shrimp like sports bars treat their chicken wings. That’s a great approach for chicken wings. Not for Italian shrimp. GOTTA GO.

Lasagna Fritta
The menu says: “Parmesan-breaded lasagna pieces, fried and served over alfredo sauce, topped with parmesan cheese and marinara sauce”
The correct answer: Look, I’m not stupid. I didn’t tell you to get rid of your deep fryer, and it isn’t entirely because of the calamari. These things are stupid, these things are offensive, these things are terrible, and these things are de-goddamn-licious. Don’t change a single awful thing about them.

Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta
The menu says: Oven-baked smoked mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and romano cheese. Served with Tuscan bread.
The correct answer: I don’t really want Welsh rarebit when I go to the Olive Garden, but I can appreciate that I’m not everyone. I especially don’t want smoked mozzarella in my cheese sauce. So make it fontina1 or something?

Dipping Sauces for Breadsticks
The menu says: “Freshly prepared marinara, alfredo or five cheese marinara sauces served warm. Includes four breadsticks”
The correct answer: This is just insulting to the breadsticks. And it comes in a huge bowl. Get this off the menu before everyone knows what a moron you are. Oh, and I’ll have more to say about this, but fuck your five-cheese marinara.

Stuffed Mushrooms
The menu says: “Parmesan, romano and mozzarella cheese, clams and herb breadcrumbs baked in mushroom caps.”
The correct answer: …clams?

Extra Breadsticks
The menu says: “Enjoy a freshly-baked Olive Garden Favorite. Add an extra dozen or half dozen breadsticks to your online order”
The correct answer: This doesn’t need to be on the menu. Carry-out customers that want extra breadsticks will ask, and you can charge them. This is stupid. Although, you know, can I get a dozen to go?

Tastes of Italy Small Plates2
Chicken Meatballs
The menu says: “A twist on an Italian favorite – Seasoned with herbs and a hint of red pepper, sprinkled with Italian cheeses and served in a zesty marinara”
The correct answer: This is several twists on what could be considered an Italian favorite if you squint (that is: meatballs in isolation). My primary concern is that heretofore on the menu they’re rapturously describing the cheese they use in their dishes like they’re presenting them as showpieces, and here, all of a sudden, they’re being super coy about them being “Italian” cheeses (this latter style will be the hallmark of most of the rest of menu)? Also, given that their “spicy” dishes are super-lame, how much red pepper can possibly be in a hint? Grind some parmesan into that chicken, get the red pepper up to at least “firm innuendo” and we’ll be in business.

Crispy Risotto Bites
The menu says: “A bite-sized blend of Italian cheeses and rice, lightly fired and served in marinara sauce”
The correct answer: The problem here is sort of conceptual. See, arancini3 are fine. They’re deep-fried balls of risotto, which I suppose you could describe as a “blend of itallian cheese and rice,” but which would be like describing a dog as “a blend of tail and teeth” – you’ve kind of got the idea, but you’ve missed the essence. Since there’s no way an actual risotto is coming out of that kitchen, best to scrap these altogether. SCRAP IT.

Tortellini al Forno
The menu says: “Cheese and prosciutto-filled tortellini in a parmesan cream sauce, topped with crumbled bacon”
The correct answer: Uh…I don’t know what a tortellini stuffed with ham and topped with bacon and smothered in cheese sauce is meant to be4, but I want no part of it. Ew. Barf. BARF IT.

Tuscan White Bean Hummus
The menu says: “Blended with cannellini beans, olive oil and garlic, Topped with garlic cloves and tomatoes, served with toasted ciabatta bread.”
The correct answer: This is fine. Although I will say this menu goes to some pretty lengthy extremes to avoid calling something “dip”. This is bean dip. It’s good, but it’s bean dip. There’s nothing Italian about hummus.

Crispy Parmesan Asparagus
The menu says: “Try our lightly fried recipe. Topped with grated parmesan and served with a citrus aioli dipping sauce”
The correct answer: The slideshow took special exception to this dish (and the next one), with the justification that asparagus was “too irregular” an ingredient (two shitty calamari appetizers is apparently not the same kind of problem). That seems insane. Make all the cuts I’ve recommended and you’ll be more than ready for these asparagus and this lemon mayonnaise. I understand that corporate restaurants are corporate first and restaurants second, but this is literally one of the easiest concessions to make. Oh, and keep your fryers hotter, because these things go greaseball in a real hurry.

Roasted Parmesan Asparagus
The menu says: “Oven-roasted with a balsamic drizzle and topped with grated parmesan. Served with a citrus aioli dipping sauce.”
The correct answer: It’s true that you probably don’t need two basically-the-same asparagus dishes, and my preference would be to the one that’s fried, but I’m so offended at the notion that asparagus is somehow the problem that I’m sticking to principle on this one.

Parmesan Olive Fritta
The menu says: “A bite-sized blend of olives and Italian cheeses, rolled together and lightly fired. Served with a citrus aioli dipping sauce”
The correct answer: I genuinely had no idea if this is a fried stuffed olive, or, like, a cheese tapenade5 arancini. The picture makes it looks like it’s the latter. That’s awful. Also awful: this menu’s continued insistence on calling things “fritta,” which is not a stand-alone italian noun. It just isn’t. Stop it. Deep-six this nonsense. DEEP-SIX IT.

Polenta Shrimp alla Greca
The menu says: “Inspired by Italy’s southern coast. Sauteed shrimp served on creamy polenta and topped with a fresh blend of olives, capers and tomato sauce.”
The correct answer: Ooooookay. First off: it’s not inspired by Italy’s “Southern coast.” Southern Italians eat pasta. Northern Italians eat polenta. If you’d paid attention to your own fucking menu you’d know that you knew that at one point, because the name of the goddamned dish is POLENTA SHRIMP ALLA GRECA. I’m going to try to keep it together to point out that “alla greca” means “like they make it in Greece,” and then, for reasons unfathomably to me, I’m going to assume you’re at least clever enough to note that off the Southern coast of Italy is NOT GREECE. It’s a shame, because this dish is, itself, by no means shameful. Just…Polenta. Northern Italy. This is not hard. Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.

Pizzas and Flatbreads

Chicken Alfredo Pizza
The menu says: “Pizza topped with grilled chicken, Italian cheeses, and our homemade alfredo sauce.”
The correct answer: Generally speaking, I’m against anything with “grilled chicken” on it at Olive Garden6, and also against their “pizza” – I have no idea what kind of ovens those things have on them, but it’s just not going to work for anything but reheating, and, frankly, there are better ways to acquire and consume reheated pizza. NIX IT.

Create Your Own Pizza
The menu says: “Choose up to four toppings: Pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, black olives or roma tomatoes”
The correct answer: this is an even worse idea than the alfredo pizza, so I’ll take this opportunity to point out that the item descriptions are copied directly from the menu, which includes their indifferent relationship to hyphens, and their extremely idiosyncratic attitude toward capitalization. It’s really, really weird. And stop making pizzas, you weirdos. You’re not that kind of Italian place. NIX IT AGAIN.

Grilled Chicken Flatbread
The menu says: “Chicken, mozzarella, roasted red peppers and basil with alfredo and garlic spread.”
The correct answer: This is the same as the chicken alfredo pizza, and while I’m more ok with flatbreads7, I’m still not ok with grilled chicken. I think, between the dryness of the chicken, the clumpy cheese and the dryness of the crust, it would be a great way to move water, if you decided to start charging for water. Yikes. Until that happens, there’s no reason for this to exist. UN-EXIST IT.

Caprese Flatbread
The menu: “Mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil on flatbread crust with garlic spread”
The correct answer: This is fine. The “garlic spread” is giving me cause for serious concern, but I suppose it’s probably not poison8. You should scrap this whole section, move this flatbread up to the appetizer section or whatever, and everyone will be super happy.

Soups & Salads
This is the last of the “Appetizer” categories!

Chicken & Gnocchi
The menu: “A creamy soup made with roasted chicken, traditional Italian dumplings and spinach.”
The correct answer: On some roads in the country, generally winding two-lane roads with property lines that end right at the road itself, where there’s no place to put a cop to radar people into following the speed limit, they put up signs that say “speed limit enforced by radar.” As a result, when you see one of those signs, you are pretty much guaranteed that the speed limit will, in fact, not be enforced by radar. I’m beginning to sense that this is the sense in which the Olive Garden menu is using the word “traditional.” It’s not traditional dumplings – they’re glue-balls that soak up the broth. This is the one soup on the menu that I could see throwing out for something else, so I suppose if there’s a better soup to replace it with, that’s cool. But honestly, it’s fine, it’s a heavy, ridiculous soup, and while there’s nothing “traditional” about those dumplings, they’re certainly not getting in the way.

Pasta e fagioli
The menu says: “White and red beans, ground beef, tomatoes and pasta in a savory broth”
The correct answer: Other than the fact that it’s actually zuppa fagioli (pasta e fagioli is, in fact, a pasta dish), and other than the fact that not calling it “Italian bean soup” means that people all over your restaurant order “fag-ee-oh-lee”, I have absolutely no real problem with this soup. It’s pretty good.

The menu says: “Fresh vegetables, beans and pasta in a light tomato broth – a vegetarian classic”
The correct answer: The menu does a pretty good job of obfuscating that this soup is basically the pasta e fagioli without the manzo, but that’s what it is, and it’s still fine. It’s not like anything is improved with more ground beef anyway.

Zuppa Toscana
The menu says: “Spicy sausage, fresh kale and russet potatoes in a creamy broth”
The correct answer: This is it. This is the one non-breadstick dish that comes from Olive Garden that I find myself craving. I don’t know why they don’t make better use of their sausage (which is “spicy” provided you use the word “spicy” to mean “peppery”), but this soup makes a pretty good case for them closing up shop and entering the sausage (and breadstick) business.

Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
The menu says: “Grilled chicken over romaine in a creamy Caesar dressing topped with romano cheese and croutons.”
The correct answer: I have absolutely nothing to say about chicken Caesar salad. Like, literally nothing one way or the other. That would be like yelling at clouds.

Our Famous House Salad
The menu says: “Tossed with our signature Italian dressing”
The correct answer: I mentioned in the first part what a delight the salad can be when you’ve eaten your weight in breadsticks dipped in zuppa toscana, and it really is. Salty olives, spicy peppers, crunchy onions. Shame the dressing is such a nightmare, but the light dressing is at least not as oppressive.

That wraps it up for the “first courses” part of the menu. Next time: a couple of categories of mains! There are so many things on this menu, it is kind of a joke! Wee!

1 which is, for the record, what a fonduta is usually made with, and is a much better melting cheese and also won’t clump up so badly and stick, disgustingly, in globules to the goddamn plate-thing that you didn’t even get warm enough jesus christ no wonder you had to sell your restaurant you FUCKING BARBARIANS. ahem.
2 you know, this whole category is stupid. The Olive Garden isn’t a tapas place, it’s never going to be a tapas place, and nobody wants tapas from The Olive Garden in theory. In practice, however, the times I have strayed from soups into this part of the menu have been the times when I haven’t been filled with the bitter taste of regret by a dish I ordered at an Olive Garden, so maybe they should use this section instead of their appetizers menu?
3 “crispy risotto bites” in Olive Garden parlance
4 a tiny hot pocket, maybe?
5 not only is that not a thing, but that’s not even a good idea
6 the chicken, a boneless skinless chicken breast that has been indolently prepared and then preserved in its state for far too long, is going to be dry and underseasoned every single time, and there’s just no reason to put a noble chicken breast through that kind of hell.
7 this has a lot to do with dough treatment and oven heat and all sorts of stuff that gets boring to non-obsessives in a hurry.
8 in fact, there’s some indication that it’s what they put on their breadsticks, in which case you’re not using it enough.

On places where you become family by going there

So things have been pretty lousy for the Darden restaurant group for some time. They divested themselves of Red Lobster so they could better focus on Olive Garden, which, I suppose, is one kind of business strategy. Earlier in the week, and to the amusement of many, a 294-slide pdf (Warning: that opens a pdf directly. Sometimes that’s a pain.) of a pitch from Starboard Value (a hedge fund that seeks to purchase Darden).

The presentation itself is a pretty crazy document, that also serves as something of a Rosetta Stone if you’re someone who is curious about how private-equity ownership and a sales-driven mass-production market has affected the business of delivering food to people1 – you can see where the marketers have come in to complain about the depth of the menu, you can see where the accountants have plugged holes (the reason for not salting the water in the pasta pots has something to do with warranties on the pasta pots), or thought they were plugging holes, and, most of all, you can see that the job of getting you to sit down, eat three courses, two drinks, and not too many breadsticks2 has a lot more to do with time and materials cost than “meal.”

Some of this is endemic to the form: Olive Garden isn’t Babbo. It isn’t even the family-owned red-sauce place in the downtown area of whatever city you’re reading this from. It’s a conglomerate-owned megarestaurant that is in the commodities business. But even with smaller, less-corporate restaurants, there’s always the delicate act of running a very peculiar business: unlike with most businesses built around producing a good, the satisfaction of this one is not only the entire point (i.e. it isn’t a shovel, where “digging a particular hole in a particular fashion” isn’t as important 99% of the time as “being able to dig a hole”), but it’s highly personalized and sometimes hinges on factors that have almost nothing to do with anything you actually do with the food.

This is where the food becomes dumber: for a great many people, dinner is zero-sum. The best you can do is enable them to talk to each other in a place that isn’t too loud. There is an enormous chunk of the client base that doesn’t actually like any food enough to tell about it3,, but that will react negatively, and loudly, if something is “not ____ enough” or “too ____”. So it becomes lowest-common-denominator food. Salty, probably. Lots of cheese, lots of dairy, lots of sugar. Things that appeal to the cerebellum, that directly tickle the satisfaction sectors4, and that, most importantly, don’t really have anything in them you could find to complain about. They put an impossible-to-miss red pepper next to anything that might read as ”spicy” (don’t get me started), and thus warn those people off of anything that might displease them.

And so, since the food experience can only be dumbed down, you have to work with the rest of it. Luckily, unobjectionable food is cheap, and easy to make cheaper. Decorations are, in the long run, higher-margin than food (they don’t spoil, and although they aren’t then re-sold, they contribute to the atmosphere, which is really the only thing separating one corporate restaurant from the the other anyway). Furnishings, waitstaff5, janitorial staff (cleanliness is, at basically every single level, proven to be the single most important thing to attracting casual dining patrons.), these are things you are now free to spend more money on.

The other source of expenditure is advertising, which is a tricky and odd place to try to spend money. Restaurants are pretty ad-proof. The advertising that is possible is mainly only effective for a tiny handful of restaurants, and then generally as the result of a catchy slogan or song or whatever6, and Starboard Value tends to spend a lot of time talking about how wrong-headed it is. It’s an interesting enough thing to consider, but predicting the efficacy of advertising is stuff that people with a lot more practice than me do pretty badly, so I’m not going to trouble myself with it. We all know that Olive Garden exists, that’s not going to change, and so it seems to me to be kind of dumb to have ads about it when there’s one in every county or so, but I’m also not an advertiser.

What I am is a customer. It’s true! I have nothing particularly good to say about their pasta (it’s gross), but there are things I’ve eaten. Their appetizers (the ones without pasta) are generally nonspecifically-ok. They’ll do the job, certainly. And they’ll usually do it for cheap, which, if I find myself in an Olive Garden, is basically all I ask. And I have had a great many soup salad and breadstick lunches.

Soup, because it’s exactly the sort of thing that dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator restaurants can do remarkably well: soups benefit from salt and fat, they are passable even without the best kind of vegetable, and they’re an excellent use of cheap meats (chicken breast, sausage) that I would otherwise probably go out of my way to avoid in that context. Salads because, well, it’s still salad. It’s not particularly interesting, but olives and red onions go a long way with me (and the pepperoncinis that come in them are often the most exciting thing in the damn place. Watch them be first up against the wall when Starboard takes over).

But the breadsticks. The presentation spends a lot of its time talking about the breadsticks. At one point, they rightly compare the breadsticks to hot dog buns, without explaining why, to someone who likes them, that would be a bad thing. Lizard-brain-food is a tough thing to talk about, because everyone responds to different aspects of it differently. That said: yes, Olive Garden breadsticks are like hot dog buns. And to someone who’s never eaten a hot dog bun in a fit of white-flour-and-sugar-and-salt-craving madness, that probably is perjorative. But Olive Garden breadsticks taste like salty hot dog buns. Salty hot dog buns with garlic. You see why in FN2 it was important to point out that too many breadsticks is a good 50% of the appeal of Olive Garden. They’re not something I’d want all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t want them in place of any actual quality bread7, but going to Olive Garden is something I’d hardly want to do very often in the first place.

And so it is as a customer that I follow the goings-on of Starboard Value and their bid to buy and improve Olive Garden. But there’s reason to be hopeful! If they’re talking about cooking food, even to some small degree, in a way that is recognizable to humans, that means that someone in charge of some of the money somewhere is at least marginably aware that it is supposed to be food, and that’s a start. In the industrialized food climate of 2014, any step forward counts as a step forward. So while my fifty dollars a year or whatever (that’s counting another person in that calculation, since I’ve never been to Olive Garden alone) certainly isn’t enough to make me a major force in any decisions, I am stil me, so tune in on Friday while I help them improve their menu.

Maybe I should buy a bunch of breadsticks and hoard them before they’re discontinued. Lord knows there’s enough preservatives to keep them good for years.

1 it’s all over the place in terms of how little sense it seems to make, but the things that are the most jarring revolve around how brutally non-food-oriented the plan itself is. One of the problems is that they don’t salt the pasta water (this is the one that gets all of the media coverage), and that’s meant to stand in for how unsensible the food preparation is, but the other biggest thing is minimizing the amount of actual prep they’re doing in the on-site restaurant kitchen. If that doesn’t read as completely bananas to you, feel free to drop me a line explaining why not.
2 editorially speaking, “eating too many breadsticks” is basically the best thing you can do in an Olive Garden. See below.
3 this is not an impugnment. No one cares about everything, some people have a functional relationship to food, this is fine. Baffling, but fine. The point of this passage is merely to point out that they exist, not that there’s anything wrong with them.
4 in its way, the presence of the salad on every Olive Garden table is probably the most brilliant thing about the restaurant, from a sales perspective: we are placated by the presence of healthy green food on the table, so we feel ok about eating our unsalted flour gum and garlic hot dog buns.
5 in an attempt to “personalize” the experience, Darden restaurants have an absurd (I believe it’s 2 or 3) table-per-server limit. This is, theoretically, to keep everyone from being under-served, another thing people are either silently approving of, or loudly disapproving of. Since labor is more expensive than tomatoes, remember that every extra server is money that comes out of the food itself.
6 of which, admittedly, “When you’re here, you’re family” is one, although that’s probably at least in part because 1) that’s an insane thing to say to your customers and 2) it’s vaguely Godfatherish, which is a weird thing for an Italian-American restaurant to be.
7 I become, as I move through the world, increasingly choosy about my bread, and I have neither no explanation with this, nor any ability to stop my journey into the innermost circles of bread-snobbery)