A Peek Behind the (Vine-Covered) Curtain

Thomas DangAssistant Editor of Natural Science

Originally written before the pandemic

Two weeks ago, I feasted. Heaping platters of spaghetti stretched out across an elegant mahogany table. Never-ending breadsticks glistened under the twinkling string lights. Finely-aged parmesan—grated tableside by a waiter dressed in crisp linens—fluttered down to adorn the shining alfredo sauce on my plate.

Though the sweet sound of “Ci Sei sempre stata” by Ligabue drifting through the cozy atmosphere might suggest otherwise, I actually wasn’t in Italy. Instead, I was in the home of America’s finest breadsticks, where unlimited soup and salad reign supreme. 

I was at the Olive Garden. 

Since the first Olive Garden opened in late 1982 in Orlando, the Italian-American restaurant chain has exploded in popularity. To say that America really loves Olive Garden would be an understatement. Olive Garden restaurants consistently rake in over $3.8 billion each year in revenues. Each year, the restaurant chain hosts a much-anticipated lottery in which they sell 1,000 never-ending pasta cards for $100 apiece; this past year, all of the cards sold out in under one second. 

Olive Garden’s position as an American cultural phenomenon is maintained by its loyal and enthusiastic fans, who hail from all walks of life. An elderly North Dakotan reporter achieved Internet fame after her laudatory newspaper review, which waxed poetic about Olive Garden’s buttery breadsticks—a topic that struck a chord with many. Another individual proudly proclaimed in a comment on a YouTube video that he had “proposed to [his] wife at Olive Garden in Temecula, California.” Some couples even trust Olive Garden to cater their wedding, complete with buttery-hot breadstick bouquets, of course.

A likely explanation as to why so many of us love Olive Garden involves the restaurant’s emphasis on emulating tastes and atmospheres that resonate with our mental images of “Italy.” This ostensible authenticity can be quite convincing: a 2013 dataset by Public Policy Polling revealed an astonishing 39% of respondents were convinced that Olive Garden is a “quality source of authentic ethnic food.” 

Fully understanding Americans’ relationship with Olive Garden invites the pressing question: is Olive Garden even “authentic?” This topic might initially seem trivial or silly, but to answer it thoroughly requires some level-headed and resourceful analysis. Our in-depth exploration of the Olive Garden will traverse several disciplines—food science, sociology, and design, to name a few—and will encourage some timely introspection regarding our role as consumers in our diverse sociocultural fabric.

The first aspect of the Olive Garden experience that greets customers upon arrival is each restaurant’s exterior façade. Following a series of company-wide renovations beginning in 2011, Olive Garden’s marketing team has lauded their restaurants’ “distinctive décor,” stating that the architecture and design are “inspired by the timeless warmth of farmhouses in Tuscany, Italy.” 

To this end, hundreds of Olive Garden locations around the world—including the restaurant I visited recently—do appear fairly “authentic.” The images below compare the exterior of a typical Olive Garden with the front of a real Italian farmhouse in the heart of Tuscany. As promised by the company’s executives, the similarities are striking. The same Mediterranean-style roof tilework, stone accents, double doors, and distinctive Cypress trees all do a surprisingly-convincing job of mimicking the real deal. 

A typical Olive Garden (photo credit

A traditional farmhouse in Tuscany, Italy (photo credit)

The design similarities to “Italy” continue in each restaurant’s interior. Following the remodels, restaurant interiors have been decorated with Doric-style columns, elegantly-stained wood, and warm stone hearths. Patios feature twinkling lights reminiscent of canal-side cafés in Venice. Select locations are even replete with Tuscan-style murals and sophisticated terrazzo floors reminiscent of those in Raphael’s “School of Athens.”

Of course, the cornerstone of Olive Garden is the food, and their menu items also sound convincingly legitimate. Appetizers are labeled as antipasti, and Italian-esque words (emphasis on the “esque”) like piadina, margherita, and even classico adorn the menu. Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford, recently published a paper in which he explores the effect the name of a dish has on customers’ perceptions. He writes, “give [the menu item] an ethnic label such as an Italian name, and people will rate the food as more authentic.” 

Naming a menu item “pasta parmigiana”—or even something so perfunctory as “pasta Italiana,” which literally translates to “Italian pasta”—has been proven by researchers to garner higher ratings from diners than if the same menu item were labeled in unembellished English. The same source also suggests that even when we don’t know what meaning an Italian-sounding word carries—for instance, orecchiette (used to describe their sausage) or al forno (for the five-cheese ziti)—we still instinctively place trust in the food’s ethnic authenticity. I will admit that these researchers’ findings do pan out in practice: upon my recent Olive Garden visit, it was immersive to be craving lemonade and to simply ask the well-dressed waiter for a limonata, the “t” sound popping crisply off my tongue.

Dish names aside, it’s critical to differentiate between which dishes on Olive Garden’s menu are cultural classics, and which are not. According to one site, the carbonara pasta at Olive Garden is inspired by a real Italian recipe, and lasagna is a delicacy Italians have enjoyed for centuries. The authenticity seems to end there, though: a post on a site called “Disgraces on the Menu” states that marinara sauce and Alfredo sauce—staples at not only Olive Garden but in all Italian-American cuisine—are seldom used in traditional Italian dishes. In fact, Alfredo sauce was invented in 1914 by an entrepreneur of the same name—not exactly the rustic beginnings we’ve grown fond of assuming.

While the dishes Olive Garden serves may not be entirely reflective of true Italian cuisine, there is certainly a degree of artful authenticity in how some dishes are prepared in the company’s restaurants. Some skeptics are convinced that the chain’s signature soups arrive in frozen blocks, and that their spaghetti sauce is shipped cross-country in huge metal vats once a month. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the truth: an anonymous employee reports that the four signature soups are handmade daily from scratch. Another anonymous server admits that while some of the menu items do come frozen, “many of the meals are prepared by hand and are made fresh daily.” That server also maintains that Olive Garden’s pastas are never frozen or microwaved and are instead prepared freshly each morning.

Our question of authenticity also extends to Olive Garden’s marketing materials. One version of their menu depicts a scenic and traditional-looking countryside manor covered in Italian vines. Additionally, a 2012 commercial by the chain entitled “Cooking School” depicts white-coated cooks training under the direction of Chef Neely, a master Italian chef. The camera then zooms into the Olive Garden logos emblazoned on the chefs’ uniforms, allowing the narrator to reveal that these are real Olive Garden chefs honing their culinary talents in the rolling hills of Tuscany.

The front cover of a real Olive Garden to-go menu (image source)

It’s tempting to dismiss this commercial as simply a charade—some magical combination of green screen and a professionally-decorated set in Los Angeles—but that’s apparently not the case, either. Not entirely, at least: a Reddit poster who claims to have once been an Olive Garden manager attests that the company does, in fact, send people to the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany,” stating that he himself received the opportunity in 2007 to study in those hallowed halls. Chef Neely is indeed a real person, and the vineyard photograph on the front cover of the menu depicts an actual location on Olive Garden’s grounds. 

Deeper analysis, however, reveals the Culinary Institute of Tuscany doesn’t quite provide the intensive, authentic kitchen training the TV spot suggests. The commercial shows the master chef sprinkling fragrant herbs into simmering pots, but the anonymous Redditor above claims that the only time the cooks would come in contact with Chef Neely was “when she made a [B]olognese sauce while taking pictures with each of us to send to our local newspapers.” The Redditor also admits that the culinary training seemed to be nothing more than talking about spices and produce for “an hour here or there…before going sightseeing all day.” The truth, quite frankly, falls short of what the company sets forth to their customers in their marketing materials. 

To analyze Olive Garden’s practices in great depth may seem inconsequential or even contrived, but these questions demand further investigation on mechanisms to counteract our tendency to associate the unfamiliar and exotic with the authentic. There clearly exists an issue with the inauthentic authenticity that Olive Garden highlights, and perhaps an even more fundamental issue with our psychological and consumerist tendencies to intrinsically favor what appears more exotic and worldly.

Do we, in the purchases we make and the brands we support, implicitly empower companies to believe they carry the authority to dictate whether something is authentic? And what does this mean for the products, services, and traditions that aren’t marketed through such culturally-favorable lenses and instead fall by the wayside? How can we combat the subtle, yet increasingly-pervasive, influence that brands and companies have on our tastes and expectations? Addressing these issues will first require introspection regarding how each of us perceives the items we consume, followed by candid and collaborative discussions regarding how we can produce marketing materials that are more truthful and culturally-competent.

These are certainly all very crucial questions—but it’s late, and I’m feeling hungry. Maybe my palette is just woefully unrefined, or perhaps I’ve fallen victim to the surprisingly-convincing illusion that these restaurants craft. Regardless, I’ll always cherish a steaming plate of Olive Garden’s legendary chicken alfredo—extra parmigiana on that, please.

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