Appetizers
March 20, 2012
Following in the footsteps of Olive Garden reviewer Marilyn Hagerty

Columnist Marilyn Hagerty's quaint review of the new-to-her-town Olive Garden restaurant in the March 7 edition of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota caused a firestorm across cyberspace (www.grandforksherald.com).

Those observers with not enough to do were quick to show how clever they are by parodying the 85-year-old reporter's straightforward assessment of the restaurant, one of 750 franchises in the national chain.

The negative viral response to her review served to partially pull back the curtain and reveal some of the insular arrogance infused within the national sideshow of uncredentialed culinary snobbery

Then a legion of her defenders (including "No Reservations" host Anthony Bourdain) stepped up, calling Hagerty's review a refreshing reality check. .

Hagerty became an instant celebrity, her review a hot topic. She made the rounds of TV talk shows and was treated to a whirlwind dining tour of New York City. Her casual lunch at a hot dog stand there was duly covered by the New York Times. Still, Hagerty says she remains puzzled over all the fuss.

We took a cue from her review and dropped in on the Olive Garden in Folsom, sort of an "in the footsteps of Marilyn Hagerty" dining adventure.


The Olive Garden chain is to Italian cooking what the Mimi's Cafe chain is to French cuisine. But note that the Olive Garden maintains a teaching facility for its chefs, the Culinary Institute of Tuscany.

The Olive Garden was packed one recent night, with "Happy Birthday" as the evening's song of choice at tables full of families.

In her review, Hagerty wrote: "The lines were long... The steady following attests the warm welcome."
Us: We were courteously greeted and shown to a booth after a 10-minute wait (the foyer was crowded with others also waiting).

Hagerty: "The place ... is fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway."
Us: We've been to Tuscan farmhouses. The semi-labyrinthian Folsom Olive Garden would not be mistaken for one.

Hagerty: "(My server) brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and ...several black olives. Along with it came a plate with two long, warm breadsticks."
Us: A pretty good salad, but the breadsticks were bulbous lumps of flavor-free dough.

Hagerty: "I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water."
Us: The raspberry lemonade was more pucker-sour than sweet; we passed on a refill and drank plenty of water.

Hagerty: "The chicken Alfredo was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese."
Us: Our plates were heaped high with steaming fettucine Alfredo mixed with strips of moist chicken breast. We added ground black pepper and Parmesan cheese. Filling, yes. Tasty? Again, yes. Genuine? What do you think?

Fettucine Alfredo got its name in 1914, when restaurateur Alfredo di Lelio of Rome added more butter to a traditional recipe of butter, cheese and fettucine, and claimed credit for something new. Actually, fettucine tossed with butter and cheese has long been a standard dish in Italy. Variations on the theme call for additions to the sauce - cream, herbs, spices, veggies, seafood, chicken.

I called the Folsom Olive Garden and asked how the kitchen makes the Alfredo sauce. After a long wait on hold (with grating background music), the hostess referred me to Heidi Schauer, manager of Olive Garden's media and communications department at corporate HQ in Orlando.

"Olive Garden's Alfredo sauce is made from scratch multiple times a day to ensure the freshness," she said. "The ingredients keep with the traditional Alfredo sauce recipe, but ours is proprietary so I can't (get into the specifics)."

What about Hagerty's review? "We're greatly appreciative of the attention," she said.


Hagerty: "Olive Garden has gained a following since 1982 with its ample portions and relaxed ambience."
Us: Ample portions? Definitely. Relaxed ambience? Well... Too much "Happy Birthday" and the relentless background din of conversation. Our server was terrific, though. Conscientious and efficient, though understandably rushed.

Given what the Olive Garden is - a chain restaurant assembly-lining massive quantities of Italian-themed food at comparatively fair prices - we think Hagerty's review was charmingly observant. We would even go back for a bowl of tasty minestrone soup and a plate of hot pasta.

Here's hoping Hagerty reviews the fried shrimp platter at the Grand Forks Red Lobster, or the baby back ribs at her local Tony Roma's. What will the cyberspace "foodies" make of that?

Olive Garden, 2485 Iron Point Road, Folsom; (916) 984-7036, www.olivegarden.com.

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