David Hammond

Last week, in time for the Super Bowl, Olive Garden started offering, for a limited time, Loaded Pasta Chips, also known (on the internets) as Italian nachos. This is a simple starter, just fried pasta sheets, ladled with tomato sauce, a few meat bits here and there, roasted cherry peppers, cheese, and a drizzle of Alfredo sauce.

Of course, such a nontraditional offering is sure to fan the fires of indignation: 

My attention was drawn to Olive Garden’s Italian nachos when friend, food writer, restaurateur and fellow paisan Joe Campagna posted a photo of the dish with the concise assessment: “This is absurd.”

With all that negative energy coming out against Italian nachos, I had to try them. So, on Sunday, we stopped by the Olive Garden near North Riverside Plaza and had them, along with the suggested pairing, Milan Mai Tai.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the ingredients of this dish, which are uniformly approved by most Americans: pasta, tomato/meat sauce, and cheese. What must be setting people off is the untraditional way in which the ingredients are brought together. But if Olive Garden represents anything, it’s the aggressively non-traditional approach to Italian cuisine, as represented in this offering as well as their fried lasagna, spiralized veggie pasta, and chicken Alfredo flat bread, none of which you’re likely to see on menus in Italy.

But so what?

Olive Garden is more concerned with making food that people will want to eat than it is with making food that’s “authentic” (a constantly invoked standard that many times means nothing). We thought the Loaded Pasta Chips were just fine, with one of us even going so far as to say she’d order it again if she came in for a snack and a glass of wine.

The menu suggested pairing the Loaded Pasta Chips with Milan Mai Tai, a blend of Malibu rum, grenadine and amaretto. This was not a good pairing: the cocoanut flavors of the Malibu rum were way out of synch with the tomato sauce and cheese, and it’s probably a good thing the amaretto was virtually unnoticeable. A glass of red wine would have been a better match for what is essentially a pasta dish.

Olive Garden has become a kind of punchline, and maybe some of that heat is deserved, but I’ll defend their right to be the source for some of the most innovative Italian food being served today…though about 30 minutes after eating there, I felt a little queasy for the rest of the afternoon. This is how I suffer for my craft. You’re welcome.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...