“When you’re here, you’re family.” So goes the popular refrain to lure us into the red-sauce joint known all across America as The Olive Garden. When it’s wintry and cold, my desire for pasta, butter, and cheese skyrockets. This recipe delivers all three in record time, and you can eat it in your PJ’s. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to the Garden, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back once I cobbled together two Fettuccine Alfredo recipes and finally achieved pasta perfection. The late 70’s Metropolitan Museum of Art cookbook had one such recipe, claimed to be from an observer who watched Alfredo himself in Rome. The key was to do as Alfredo did: “turn the heat off when you add the cheese.” Duly noted. And Chuck Williams, the late departed founder of Williams-Sonoma, suggested steeping sliced garlic and butter in the cream. Game-changer. And now that the Olive Garden sells their signature dressing and croutons in stores, it’s a small matter to make your own Olive Garden-inspired house salad if you want an “authentic” experience! And, you won’t be a supporting a corporate-owned business that destroys creativity and ingenuity. More on that next.
I always wondered why one of our department’s favorite professors at university always mentioned the Olive Garden in snide side remarks. This went on for three classes over a several-year timespan. The Olive Garden seemed to be his ideal example of banal comestibles and ho-hum middle-class fantasies. “When you and your date are at the Olive Garden…” or “So you can get a good job and bring your girlfriend to the Olive Garden,” to “You know you’ve made it when you are eating at the Olive Garden and you can have all-you-can-eat breadsticks!” These comments, delivered in a Gallic accent at the crescendo of a humorous tale, would inevitably cause titters of laughter amongst us students. I assumed because of his French background it followed that his gastronomic sensibilities were offended by the ubiquitous Italian –American chain restaurant.
It was only until my final semester and class with Professor X that I learned the secret of his disdain for the Olive Garden. He shared that many moons ago he had been a salad prep chef at The Olive Garden. The rules were rigid and specific for the number of olives, tomato slices, peperoncino peppers, croutons, etc. that would go into each salad prepared assembly-line style. The order in which these items were added was precise and from a manual, enforced by a draconian manager. Imagine the inventiveness of this salad chef when he decided to create a splash guard of a to-go box top between the critical assembly line items of croutons and dressing. The dressing, applied from a ladle, would invariably splash on the croutons, making them un-crispy and unappetizing as salad prep continued through the evening. His supervisor immediately noted the deviation from the official Olive Garden rulebook, and a confrontation ensued, ending with our protagonist telling his boss in no uncertain terms, “Take this job and shove it!” It was a memorable story, accompanied by the message that the more education and degrees we got, the less bullsh*t we would have to take from our workplaces. For anyone who has toiled in customer service jobs where you feel more like a robot/slave than a human being, the words were welcome succor. And so in closing, I raise my glass to the spirit and substance of the “Olive Garden Story.” Make this at home and perform your own quiet act of revolution. Breadstick recipe not included.
1 pkg. dried fettuccine pasta (try to find a brand made in Italy)
1 ½ cups heavy cream, approx.
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into cubes
¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated(non-negotiable)
two cloves of garlic, sliced thin
freshly ground black pepper
Bring water to boil to cook pasta. Begin to steep garlic in cream and butter, keep at a very low simmer to infuse flavor and reduce/thicken cream and butter mixture.
Cook pasta, drain. Do not rinse with water. Remove softened garlic with a slotted spoon. Raise heat to medium. Add about half of pasta to cream/butter mixture, using tongs to toss and allow warm past to absorb hot cream sauce. May add additional pasta, but do not be concerned if mixture is loose. Add generous grind of black pepper. No need for salt since the cheese is very salty. The cheese (added next) will thicken sauce up naturally. TURN OFF HEAT (to keep cheese from becoming grainy) and toss, toss, toss until cheese, pasta, and sauce become one. Transfer to platter or individual bowls with your tongs, sprinkle with chopped Italian parsley, and serve immediately.
Salad Ingredients (In the style of the Olive Garden)
One head iceberg lettuce, washed and torn
One head butter lettuce, washed and torn
Purple cabbage, shredded
Sliced vine-ripened tomatoes
Whole Ripe California Olives (you can pick how many!)
Italian vinaigrette-style dressing