Moderately-priced and family-oriented, the full-service national chains serving are where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, get their primary experience with Italian-themed food. With one exception, the largest chains, comprising over 1,600 individual restaurants, serve a fairly similar array of southern Italian-American dishes tweaked to capitalize on recent restaurant trends and featuring more-than-a-few fried starters, lots of red sauce, frequent use of cream sauces, overcooked pasta, numerous uses of the bland chicken breast, plenty fat and protein, and very little subtlety or complexity on the plate.
Almost nothing is remotely similar in taste or preparation to what is served in Italy despite frequent usage of “authentic Italian” on menus and in promotions. The food is not only familiar and long-loved, but these restaurants also cultivate a festive environment or family friendly environment as differentiators in a crowded restaurant landscape. Feasts and family have long been calling cards of Italian food in this country. “We make every meal feel like a celebration,” according to Spaghetti Warehouse’s website, which is applicable to most of the others. The Olive Garden’s pitch slogan is the well worn, “When you’re here, you’re family.”
Even in a New Hampshire town of about 25,000, a local restaurant critic could need to question “why anyone would wait in line for hours at The Olive Garden for food no better than a banquet frozen dinner cooked in a microwave.” Founded in 1982, it is the largest of the Italian-themed restaurant chains with over 720 locations by 2010. It is also the most universally derided, deservedly so, though it is not even the least expensive in the class. But, as a testament to how much a part of Italian-American food is of American life, the filmmaker of a documentary about new citizens found that after the swearing-in ceremony, most brand new Americans celebrate at The Olive Garden.
Other chains like Spaghetti Warehouse, Carino’s, and Macaroni Grill, the three of which total over 350 locations, carry slightly lower prices. It is interesting that this trio originated in the Dallas and Austin areas, cities with no appreciable Italian-American presence, just like The Olive Garden’s birthplace in Orlando. Two pricier chain concepts, Maggiano’s Little Italy and Buca di Beppo, passionately embrace the Italian-American heritage of its dishes and restaurants. Portions are intentionally huge, and the dining rooms are dimmed and loud. The former’s forty-five locations are handsome and clubby, the latter’s eight-five are kitschy and fun. Bred in Columbus, Ohio, fancifully named Brio Tuscan Grille would rather be perceived as Italian. It offer similar prices and dishes as Maggiano’s and Buca di Beppo, but with more contemporary Italian names, plus it has an emphasis on the grill and broiler.
Probably the most interesting of all these national chains is Carrabba’s Italian Grill. This is partly because it began as a successful restaurant in a competitive market rather than as a completely market-research-driven concept like the other half-dozen. Its original site, which is still owned and operated by a founder, remains amazingly popular, because it is almost the ideal Italian-American trattoria, if such a thing exists. In its 230-plus locations it managed to retain some of the personality of the original owners who have been successful with other restaurants, and have even hosted several national PBS cooking series. Carrabba’s features an open kitchen, wood-burning grill, brick pizza oven, and a menu that is familiar but more appealing than the others.
Another chain that is more engaging that most is the California-based Il Fornaio chain with just over twenty locations. It was started by Williams Sonoma in the early 1980s who licensed a business in Italy. Reflecting a name that translates to “The Baker,” these make bread in-house while also providing a more thoroughly Italian atmosphere; there are often actually Italians heading the kitchens and sometimes on the floor. These are far from ambitious – the cooking rarely excites – but they provide a better and more truly Italian option than most of its competitors.
This has been adapted from the eBook, From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione – The Story of Italian Restaurants in America that is available on the Amazon Kindle Store, online at Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.