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Dining at Olive Garden, with great expectations

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For years, we have been listening to people whisper breathlessly about their desire for an Olive Garden to take its place among the other national chain restaurants on Watertown's Arsenal Street strip.


The long-awaited Olive Garden restaurant is finally here.


The chain is mighty proud of its new "Tuscan" look. The orange-yellow stonelike exterior with matching tile roof is unmistakable. It really jumps out at you, and not in a good way. It's UGGGGLY. Looks like something from Canada, not Tuscany (that should be good for a few emails from my Canadian friends. ...).


But if nothing else, it serves as a beacon to hordes of OG lovers. The fact that you cannot get to the restaurant from Arsenal Street (you have to make the turn into Salmon Run Mall and weave your way around back) didn't deter the crowds at 5:30 on a Thursday evening.


People were, if not actually lined up out the door, milling about outside waiting for their tables, each party with one of those "your table is ready" beepers in hand.


Inside, more diehard diners were standing around waiting for their tables. In the early days of Olive Garden you could watch fresh pasta being made through a kitchen window or be pacified with breadsticks from a basket offered by a staff member dressed up in a chef's outfit. Not anymore. A huge corporation — Darden Restaurants — purchased OG in 1995, and since then, it's all about doing numbers. Herd 'em in and herd 'em out.


We decided to wait in the bar for our beeper to beep. The bar itself is not very large — perhaps a dozen seats are available. It's a separate room lined with booths, so at slower times you could probably retire to one of them with drinks; but on this night, they were already filled with diners of all ages, from young marrieds with squealing babies to silent senior couples.


There were only two icy cold beers on draft — Blue Moon and Bud Light, but there's a good selection by the bottle. For a big chain, there's a decent selection of wines, too, but you're not going to get any bargains here. A glass of Kendall Jackson reserve chardonnay was $8.95 (you can buy an entire bottle at a liquor store down the street for just a few dollars more on sale.


Within a half hour we were led to our seats, noticing what seemed to be a vast number of servers and busers and others rushing to and fro. Despite the dividing up of the large space into several rooms, there still was lots of noise and motion and commotion — kind of like being in a food court. Toooo loud. But at least it was pleasant and bright, much nicer than the exterior.


Laminated menus with the professional photos let you know you're in a chain restaurant. The only trouble is, sometimes the photos look better than the dish sitting in front of you. But the photographers have hours to fuss over their photos — the people in the kitchen only have seconds to plate your food.


One of the high points of our visit was our peppy waitress, Desiree. She was totally honest in her opinions about the food, willing to chat when we did, but also experienced and extremely competent. Some friends who'd dined there a few nights before us had a server who didn't know the difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.


Desiree enthusiastically proclaimed lasagna fritta ($8.75) as the best appetizer, so we went along with her recommendation, and ordered mussels di Napoli ($9.75) and calamari ($9.25), too.


The mussels were great — cooked just right — and in a pleasant lemony wine and butter broth that begged for bread, which at a word from us, Desiree trotted out. The small, soft breadsticks were salty and a little greasy, perfect for sopping up the tasty liquid.


The calamari was standard, crisper than anticipated and not exactly an overflowing portion. In addition to the customary marinara sauce for dipping there was an interesting Parmesan-peppercorn sauce.


The lasagna fritta thing was nasty. Little rectangles of tasteless pasta were deep-fried and served with a gloppy Alfredo and a passable marinara sauce. I think I heard the word "gross" from someone at our table. Not sure what Desiree was thinking.


You have the choice of soup or salad with your entrée. House salads are served family style, rumored to be all-you-can-eat, although we never saw that in print and never got to that point. The salad itself was nothing special, primarily iceberg lettuce with "wheels" of Roma tomatoes, onions and olives, dressed with their "signature" Italian dressing and presented smothered with commercial croutons.


Soups were a bit better. Pasta e fagioli was a little short on beans, but had lots of tiny ditalini pasta and a little ground beef in a spicy tomato broth. Chicken and gnocchi soup was very homey — doughy-good dumplings with some chicken in a delightfully creamy broth that you wished you could suck up through a straw.


We skipped over the basic pasta dishes like lasagna, ziti, spaghetti and meatballs and chicken Parmesan (averaging around $12.50) in favor of some entrées that were a little more adventurous.


If you're looking for a hearty, stick-to-the-ribs dish, get the Chianti-braised short ribs ($16.75). Chunks of braised, boneless beef were fork-tender and had taken on the flavor of the cooking liquid, a rich beef and mushroom reduction with a handful of cooked grape tomatoes thrown in. It was served with a nice beefy-cheesy-buttery risotto and steamed green beans that were crisp-tender.


Seafood Brodetto ($16.95) was very good, a soup of sorts — small shrimp and small bay scallops and chunks of tilapia in a delicious broth of white wine, crushed tomatoes and saffron. Torn spinach was thrown on top just before serving, but was dried-up looking from sitting under the heat lamps. Toasted crostini aided in the mopping up process.


Stuffed chicken Marsala ($15.95) didn't really meet our expectations. Although the large chicken breast was cooked perfectly — still juicy and not dried out — the dish was not a winner. The stuffing, advertised as Italian cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes, wasn't very cheesy, and we couldn't find any sun-dried tomatoes. The sauce was just white glop and hard to differentiate from the garlic-Parmesan mashed potatoes on the plate. And there was absolutely no flavor of Marsala wine that we could detect.


We tried something relatively new to the menu — steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo ($15.95). While the substantial portion didn't look anything like the slick menu photo, it was really pretty good. Fettuccini noodles were tossed with their so-so Alfredo, kicked up a notch with the addition of Gorgonzola (similar to blue cheese) and spinach. On top, four "medallions" (more like hunks) of grilled unnamed beef, cooked to medium, as ordered, were drizzled with a balsamic glaze. The top was sprinkled with sun-dried tomato bits that we first mistook for bacon bits.


Ravioli di Portobello ($12.50) was simple and effective, thin, mushroom-filled ravioli in a "creamy smoked cheese and sun-dried tomato sauce." While the mushroom flavor came through, we really had to think about the smoked cheese and sun-dried tomato flavors in the sauce.


Desserts? We didn't need 'em, but it's our duty to keep our readers informed.


"Little" desserts are a big deal these days. The trio of "dolcini" ($6.75) consisted of our choice of chocolate mousse, amaretto tiramisu and dark chocolate with caramel, served in small glass dishes. Warm apple crostata ($6.35) was not as enticing as its menu description, basically an apple crisp a la mode.


The classic Italian dessert tiramisu ($5.95) was a bit dry, best described as "institutional." The best of the bunch, however, was lemon cream cake ($6.25), a delicate white cake with a lemon cream filling and a crumbly crumb topping.


Three appetizers, four desserts and five entrées cost $155.64 before tip. With drinks, we were just shy of $200.


One neat thing — when we ordered a glass of wine, Desiree brought the actual bottle of wine to the table and poured it right there. She began the night by tempting us with a bottle of sicky-sweet Muscato. I think she knew from the look on our faces (like we had all just sucked on a lemon) that Muscato wasn't for us. "But I almost always sell the wine that I bring out," said Desiree.


Bring out another glass of that overpriced Kendall Jackson, please.


"Upscale institutional" might be the best way to describe the food at Olive Garden. These mega food cafeterias have got mass-produced food down to a science. The majority of what we ate was prepared many miles away in cavernous kitchens, portioned and frozen and trucked in to Watertown for our dining enjoyment. Very little is cooked to order, except some of the meats.


It's not much different than going to the frozen food section of your supermarket and picking up a good DiGiorno frozen pizza or a nice Stouffer's entrée. They're not bad, and neither was the food at OG.


I understand the allure of these big box eateries, but personally, I'd eat at a locally owned restaurant first any day of the week. And when it comes to Italian, Watertown has some pretty darn good choices.


You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: wsiebel@wdt.net.





Olive Garden


20988 Salmon Run Mall Loop Road West


Watertown, N.Y.


786-2934


www.olivegarden.com





The long-awaited Olive Garden restaurant is finally here.





HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday


11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday





APPETIZER PICK: Mussels di Napoli





SOUP PICK: Chicken and gnocchi





ENTRÉE PICKS: Chianti-braised short ribs; seafood Brodetto





DESSERT PICK: Lemon cream cake





RATING: 3 FORKS

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