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Garden-Variety Dining

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Economy be damned! Haute cuisine in the city has never been more glorious. At the same time, however, a curious culinary phenomenon is underfoot: the rise of the chain restaurant. Last week, the Olive Garden opened in, of all places, Chelsea. (The first Manhattan branch, in Times Square, has two-hour lines for dinner; the chain's 502nd establishment will soon open in Brooklyn.)

It's easy to turn up one's nose. But is the food really that bad? After all, the Tuscan-themed chain, as we know from those ubiquitous TV commercials, does send its cooks to Florence for training. Our panel of Italian chefs -- Vincent Scotto of Gonzo, Frank Crispo of Crispo, and Sam DeMarco of First, Merge, and District -- stopped in for a tasting.

On the Principato Rosso wine (made especially for the Olive Garden):

Vinny: I've had worse.
Sam: Not bad.
Frank: It tastes like it has a screw top.

On the menu's offerings:

Vinny: $18.25 veal -- not cheap.
Frank: This is the Carbo Garden.
Sam: Atkins is how I lost 50 pounds. I used to be 205.
Vinny: I haven't been 205 pounds since I was 12.
Sam: Yeah, but you're not five-two.

On the zuppa Toscana:

Frank: It has a good amount of salt.
Vinny: I feared spinach, but it's actually Tuscan black cabbage.
Sam: I'm very happy. I even like this spoon -- it's very comfortable.

On the pasta e fagioli:

Sam: Jeez, I can smell the acid from the sauce.
Frank: This will give you agita, all those dried herbs!
Vinny: This is heartburn in a bowl.

On all the toppings:

Vinny: I love the sausage pellets on the pizza -- they look like rat turds. Italians have a very clean diet; they would never have all these toppings.
Frank: This is what kills our restaurants! They've got 300 pounds of cubed grilled chicken in the back. They can add the pieces to anything.
Vinny: Then our customers ask, "Why can't I have chicken in my arrabiata?" Because you can't, that's why.

On the entrées:

Vinny: My broccoli and chicken is not horrible. The broccoli's actually crunchy. It's almost impossible to overcook orecchiette, but they managed it. On the prep list today: Cook 50 pounds of spaghetti! On yesterday's: Cook 50 pounds of linguini! It does look just like the photo, though.
Frank: All right, I've got a scoop for you. What they call Parmesan is actually pecorino Romano.
Vinny: Probably a 45-pound block from Argentina.
Sam: Wait a minute, what's this chicken stuffed with? It's . . . bread! There's bread everywhere.
Frank: People who go to Equinox are not coming here.

The last word:

Frank: The service and the bottomless drinks were the best part -- what were those, 24-ounce glasses?
Vinny: This place will do well. Plenty of people wouldn't know good food if it bit them in the ass.
Sam: Now I've got somewhere else to take my parents when they come to New York.


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