You may have recently encountered a series of memes on social media, each featuring a scene from the movie Goodfellas where a laughing Ray Liotta is dubbed as saying something like, “And he insisted that Olive Garden was a real Italian restaurant.” Hahahaha.
This has been a running joke among us Italian Americans for at least a year, as best as I can tell, but I have to make a confession I sincerely hope won’t have me fitted with cement overshoes and dumped at the bottom of the Brooklyn Bay.
I actually like Olive Garden.
Wait! Before you come after me, listen, please!
I grew up in Norwalk, CT, about 40 miles outside New York City, and every Sunday my dad would take me over to Grandma and Grandpa Lombardo’s in the nearby town of Darien for Grandma’s outstanding pasta and meatballs covered in scrumptious marinara sauce. And the salads—if you could stand the copious amounts of vinegar Grandma doused the lettuce with—were, well, mouth-wateringly delicious. These Sunday feasts, in addition to my living in the world’s best pizza region stretching from New York City all the way to New Haven, CT, have made me qualified to judge what’s good and what isn’t.
But at the age of forty I somewhat reluctantly left the northeastern United States, so teeming with Italian Americans and their culinary talents, and, as part of a job transfer, landed in Loudoun County, Virginia, where Italians are as rare as polar bears in the Sahara desert. It’s all about U.S. migration patterns, you see. Here, in rural Northern Virginia, the land was predominantly settled by Germans, Scots, and Irish, and other non-Olive-green-skinned Europeans. Here, they do barbecued pulled pork, hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries. Here, should an authentic Italian American open a ristorante or pizzeria the locals are just as likely to choose Domino’s or Chef Boyardee. They wouldn’t know a good slice of pizza or bowl of pasta if it bit them on the lips. One year, I won a free Domino’s pizza which I couldn’t even get the dog to eat, and the dog was a Labrador who once even ate a full diaper. Bleurgghh! Later, when I was a Little League coach down here, we threw the kids a “pizza” party when the season was over. The moms ordered Domino’s because it was the cheapest. I politely abstained.
Yeah, there are exceptions such as Teddy’s Pizza in Middleburg, VA, and 900 Degrees in Purcellville, each owned and operated by authentic Italians and cooking up delicious pizza, pasta and more. Teddy’s is a long drive for my family and me, and 900 Degrees has to cater to the local “tastes” or risk going out of business like so many Italian restaurants in the area, so I can’t exactly get cavatelli or spumoni there. However, for the most part, the Italian food south of the Mason-Dixon Line is a perversion of the traditional ingredients and flavor. As a general rule, the farther you get from the cities where Italian immigrants settled, the scarcer and more unappetizing the Italian cuisine gets. My cousin in Connecticut felt so sorry for me she shipped a family-sized portion of cavatelli, meatballs and sauce to me, courtesy of John The Baker in Stamford, Connecticut.
So, for all you Italian Americans scorning Olive Garden, why don’t move down here and see how long you can go looking for the ingredients you need to whip up your own traditional Italian food? See how long you can go without a sweet cousin shipping you cavatelli and meatballs from the northeast? See how long you can go before waiting in line at Olive Garden or Bertucci’s for something different than pulled pork and better than fast food abominations such as Domino’s?