Red Sauce America - Food, Culture, and Italian American Experience

Breadsticks and Pasta: How Olive Garden Americanized Italian Food

By on Wednesday, November 8th, 2023 at 5:32 pm | 1,607 views

The Olive Garden restaurant in Times Square arrived in New York City just as the theater district was being revived. Here the restaurant sign has been updated to an LED screen and towers over the subway entrance at 49th Street

The Olive Garden restaurant chain is often ridiculed by Italian Americans. The experience is inauthentic, the pasta overcooked, and the Alfredo sauce made with heavy cream. Yet, in one respect, the success of the chain represents the acceptance and integration of Italian American culture as simply mainstream American culture.

The origins of Olive Garden begin in the 1970s when the General Mills company went on an acquisition spree. The food manufacturer best known for milling flour, spread beyond the processed foods like cold cereal, Betty Crocker, and Pillsbury. The growing conglomerate even dabbled in fashion, acquiring Eddie Bauer, a sports clothing company, in 1971 and Talbot’s in 1973.

Among the many acquisitions was Bill Darden’s seafood restaurant, Red Lobster. While many of the other purchases had languished, Red Lobster proved enough of a success for General Mills to decide what the company really needed was to launch a new line of restaurants.

Along with the success of Red Lobster, Bill Darden had risen in the ranks of General Mill’s restaurant division. When the conglomerate wanted to launch a new concept, they turned to Darden to lead the project. His project would lead to Olive Garden.

The Olive Garden Italian Restaurant launched in Orlando, Florida on December 13, 1982. The concept mixed traditional Italian American cuisine with the then modern ideas of Italian food. The early menu included classic Italian American dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, manicotti, and chicken parmigiana as well as newer, “northern” cuisine.

Just a few decades earlier, Italian cuisine was seen as overly ethnic. In the early twentieth century, Italian immigrants and the foods they ate were seen as foreign and too ethnic in the United States. Those attitudes began to change by the post-war period. Soldiers returning from Europe often had expanded their palates, in part because they had new culinary experiences abroad. Convenience foods had also grown in popularity in post-war domestic kitchens paving the way for take-out pizza and frozen lasagna.

Pizzerias expanded beyond niche Italian neighborhoods. National chains like Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, and Little Caesars had proven Americans liked Italian flavors, especially mozzarella cheese.

And finally, the low-cost spaghetti houses that first appeared in the 1920s and 1930s helped bring Italian cuisine to non-Italians. These independent restaurants had a limited menu of spaghetti dishes with a variety of Italian American sauces, all at an affordable price point. The Olive Garden concept simply took these early influences and formalized them into a casual dining experience accessible to the average American consumer. Italian American cuisine was gradually becoming simply American cuisine.

Olive Garden arrived at an ideal time to exploit the Italian American experience. Even as red sauce Italian had grown into a staple of American cuisine, the 1970s had seen the idea of Italian food in America rapidly evolve.

Marcella Hazan began publishing recipes in two volumes that were eventually combined into the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. While she did have a tomato sauce recipe, many of the other recipes were revelatory for Americans accustomed to heavy, rich red sauce classics.

The Seven Countries Study also began publishing information that popularized the idea of the Mediterranean Diet. The diet’s main objectives emphasized fish, olive oil, and fresh vegetables for longevity, all foods naturally part of Italian cuisine.

The Olive Garden embraced these new trends. The menu included dishes like pasta primavera, a nod to contemporary Italian food. Pasta Primavera, however, was invented in New York for a French restaurant just a few years before Olive Garden launched. In 1974, Sirio Maccioni and chef Jean Vergnes created the dish for the menu of Le Cirque, a famed French-style restaurant in Manhattan. By the early 1980s, pasta primavera had become a popular addition at Italian restaurant menus, and Olive Garden was no different. The chain was mirroring trends in independent Italian restaurants and helping make those part of the greater American culinary experience.

By embracing both classic red sauce cuisine and new dishes like primavera, Olive Garden was positioning itself to appeal to American consumers, even if it was neither representative of Italian nor Italian American cuisine.

The chain also relied on iconography linking the Olive Garden to Tuscany. The chain’s restaurants were designed to look like Tuscan villas. Eventually Olive Garden developed a Tuscan Culinary Institute, although accounts of this destination were more akin to a hotel than a school. However, linking the restaurant to Tuscany was a major shift away from traditional Italian American cuisine in the United States drawing on influences from southern Italy. The timing was perfect.

Advertising played a big role in creating the Olive Garden mythology. “Touring Italy” was a major part of their campaigns with nods to both southern and northern cuisine. Conceptually, the ads encouraged diners to enjoy a culinary tour of the country highlighting origins of dishes. The idea of touring Italy also played into the growing interest in international travel as the cost of jet airfare came down.

The restaurant concept was a huge success and quickly grew over the next decade following its launch. The chain grew to nearly 150 restaurants. In 1993, it even joined the Times Square revitalization efforts, planting a foot in the New York City market alongside the Disney Store and the cleaned up theater district.

The success of the restaurant, though, also meant General Mills saw an opportunity to divest themselves of the unit for a huge profit. In 1995, they spun off the restaurant businesses as Darden Restaurants. They named the division in honor of Bill Darden who had died the year before, succumbing to illness.

Olive Garden continued serving up pasta, unlimited breadsticks, and Italian-inspired decor, but the reputation of the restaurant began to suffer. In 2014, an investment group led by Starboard Value attempted to replace the management of Darden restaurants. In their proxy fight over control of the board, they released a 300-page PowerPoint presentation highlighting the restaurants’ shortcomings. Olive Garden was taken to task for failing to salt the water used to boil pasta and serving too many breadsticks in each basket.

Starboard Value promised to return Olive Garden to “authentic” Italian roots and made menu suggestions on how to improve revenue. Authenticity was a major component of their pitch, yet the financial analysts didn’t seem to realize authenticity was not part of Olive Garden’s original success, nor were their suggestions representative of authentic Italian cuisine. Authenticity became a kind of ironic marketing term disconnected from reality.

What Olive Garden did provide however, was an idealized conception of Italy, Italian cuisine, and Italian American cuisine, at a budget price point. In this sense, Olive Garden has always been authentic to Italian American cuisine. Early Italian restaurants operated by immigrants in the urban enclaves where they settled were long known to offer good value, and large portions. As spaghetti Houses spread across the United States, it reaffirmed the idea of Italian food as a budget-friendly option. Olive Garden, in many ways, was simply a modern reinterpretation of these classic restaurants.