A taste of Italy, American-style

INSTAGRAM.COM/OLIVEGARDENPHILIPPINES

ABOUT 10 years ago, Grand Forks, North Dakota food columnist Marilyn Hagerty (née Hansen) stepped into an Olive Garden restaurant for the first time. She was then well in her 80s, and left a positive review: “The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous,” she said in her review for their local paper, the Grand Forks Herald. During the Olive Garden’s preview at the SM Mall of Asia late last week, we let out our inner Ms. Hagerty and tried to enjoy a chain restaurant as if it were our first time, as well as we can.

“We love first-time guests,” said Greg Dalogh, Director for International, Darden – International in an interview with BusinessWorld. Darden Restaurants, Inc. is the American parent company of Olive Garden, as well as of Longhorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, and The Capital Grille, among others.

The restaurant chain opened its first branch in 1982 in Florida.

“Even though our brand is 40 years old, there are still guests that — even in the United States, where we have many markets that have an Olive Garden —  there are folks that have not tried it out,” Mr. Dalogh said about Ms. Hagerty’s review. “We certainly want them to come in and try our food, and experience the Italian warmth and generosity that we provide.”

Except Olive Garden isn’t authentically Italian — it’s American-Italian, formed by the senses of the Italian immigrant experience. Italian migrants, leaving the farmlands of (usually) the southern Italian regions of Naples and Sicily, found a land of abundance in America, and indulged themselves with meats and fat as they weren’t able to do back in the homeland.

“When you look at Italian-American food, really, it’s about rich, abundant flavors and value. When you look at American-Italian food versus true authentic Italian, it’s bigger, bolder flavors, larger portion sizes, [that] really deliver value to our guests,” said Abe Acosta, Director for Culinary, Darden – International. 

Bolder, bigger, and larger was right: like in the US, they serve their salad, soup, and breadsticks on an all-you-can-eat basis. We tried the Minestrone (an Italian vegetable soup), and a colleague had remarked that it was salty; but it was otherwise fine for me, if a bit too acidic because of the tomatoes. “First is value, but the second is sharing, which is very strong in Filipino culture. It brings together more of the home-like family environment, where you can share a meal together,” said Mr. Dalogh about the unlimited first course offerings.

Ms. Hagerty’s favorite, the Chicken Parmigiana (a breaded chicken cutlet), had an aggressive and forward flavor; which can be said for the rest of the dishes, including the lasagna and the Fettucine Alfredo.

According to Mr. Acosta, everything is made in-house, and the lasagna filling was made from scratch. A welcome respite was the Shrimp Scampi, with a light, invigorating sauce, and plump shrimp and chopped asparagus. That was our clean and clear winner for that day.

Mr. Acosta said that they did not alter the menu in its entry to the Philippine market, their first in this country; and in Asia. “We did not. We adjusted some flavors, some salinity, some sweetness, but for the most part, this is as close we could bring the Olive Garden to the Philippines,” he said. “The decision was made to be as close to the United States as possible, and then listen to the guests to understand any adaptations we may or may not need in the future.”

On opening in the Philippines, Mr. Dalogh said, “It’s just the growth here in the Philippines, and finding the Bistro Group which has been a fantastic partner, with many well-known American brands.” In the Philippines, the Bistro Group operates Denny’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Texas Roadhouse, and Hard Rock Cafe, among others. “They’re just a great complement to our business.” Asked if they plan to open other Darden Restaurants Inc. concepts in the Philippines in the future, Mr. Dalogh said, “We don’t have anything signed, but we’re always looking.”

Several years ago, Olive Garden’s slogan had been “When you’re here, you’re family.” While the slogans have changed over the years, the sense of family is still strong. “I want them to feel like family,” said Mr. Acosta about how he wants people to feel when they enter an Olive Garden. “I want them to feel welcome, special, appreciated. I want family moments to be shared here.”

The Olive Garden is located at the SM Mall of Asia in Pasay City. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. — Joseph L. Garcia