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Food and Leisure

In the Garden of lively delights

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan - The Philippine Star
In the Garden of lively delights
Greg Balogh, Darden Restaurants director of international ops support: Olive Garden is one of the restaurant chains under the Orlando-based company.

Let’s admit it.

There was a point in the last two years when most of us missed being seated in a full-capacity restaurant with loved ones or friends — punctuating this chaotic-as-a-multiverse-variant of an existence with bits of food and tiny yet essential joys. We thought — with bungling leaders, conspiracy theorists and post-Truth platforms — that this day would never come, that we’d be crying into our food deliveries and instant noodles, recoiling from twerking superhero-lawyers on TV, being aghast at Bollywood’s “Mr. Batman” on YouTube, and angrily watching civilization crumble in realtime.

But overcome we have (at least, for now). Here we are (dramatis personae: zz69, Coach Foodie and the Quantum Teleportation Man) in a restaurant and the servings are generous, overflowing and never-ending: garden-fresh house salad, homemade soups and those addictively soft, garlicky and creamy-tasting breadsticks. The drinks are refreshing and elegantly prepared. They disappear quickly, especially glasses of Bellini and hibiscus, while conversations turn from our favorite regrets to, uh, the somnolent art of watching chess in a sportsfest. Food being the fulcrum of it all.

And it’s not just a restaurant, mind you. This is the world-famous, branch-sprouting Olive Garden that opened recently at SM Mall of Asia, its first (of, we assume, many) in the Philippines.

Abe Acosta, director of culinary for Darden Restaurants (which has Olive Garden in its lineup), has gone back and forth to our own part of the world from their Orlando HQ three times in the last eight weeks. Olive Garden is the largest Italian-American restaurant chain in the US, where it operates 895 restaurants. The man’s attention to detail is impressive.

Abe Acosta, Darden culinary director.

“Our brand is all about value, abundance, generosity in a setting where there is a culture of family,” says Acosta. He suggests ordering the Tour of Italy where you get three of the restaurant’s most popular dishes on one plate: chicken Parmigiana, lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo. “Our Alfredo is our signature sauce and is made daily in-house, every hour.” The dishes he personally orders whenever he finds himself in an Olive Garden are the chicken and shrimp carbonara. “Very rich, it’s fantastic.”

Olive Garden prides itself on rich flavors, bold flavors. And “handmade” is a term you’d want to hear from a restaurant artisan. That means much care and mad skills were involved in the creation of the dish right in front of you. “Our Asiago Tortelloni Alfredo and lasagna fritta are handmade and hand-filled.” We at the table try the breaded, deep-fried lasagna fritta and declare it a must-try. More dishes arrive. The softness and freshness of the pasta in white sauce evoke memories of lunches in the quiet, summery corners of Giardini in Venice.

Acosta says he has been with Olive Garden for 21 years, starting out as a team member, waiting tables in a branch in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; becoming manager; and eventually being on the international side of the business for seven years (helping set up shop in Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, among others).

When Olive Garden starts its operations in a particular country, there is a faithful adherence to the original US menu, the core recipes. But eventually local tastes and palates are studied and new dishes and flavors, as well as adaptations, are introduced. Acosta says, “It’s about listening to what the guests are asking for.”

The partnership with Bistro was an inspired move, according to the people at Darden. Bradley Smith, senior VP of franchising, says: “We know that The Bistro Group’s deep experience in the restaurant industry will help us successfully serve our guests in the Philippines.”

Acosta adds, “We are very confident that Olive Garden will resonate here in the Philippines because of our partnership with Bistro, our success in the US, and our growth internationally.”

The Bistro Group president Jean Paul Manuud is as optimistic as well. He says, “We share the same values and live by a similar dining philosophy. Great hospitality and generosity in service and food quality are at the core of our business. We believe we are a good fit.”

Greg Balogh, Darden director for international ops support, has been with Olive Garden for 23 years, starting his career in Atlanta, Georgia. He says, “Bistro has a fantastic reputation with many American brands. They are the smart choice.”

Balogh shares how the Filipino culture pairs well with Olive Garden: with staff treating guests like family. “People are so wonderful and friendly here. It really fits with the Olive Garden DNA. As we see the pandemic hopefully coming to an end, we see different markets opening up across the globe.”

And it is about time the Philippines gets its own Olive Garden, or two, or 10.

So, here we are — after being boxed in for years — finally in an Olive Garden with an al fresco area that faces Seaside Boulevard in Pasay City. Coffee and a plateful of zeppoli (Italian doughnuts) are shared while soaking up the restaurant’s Italian countryside palette of browns and olive greens. What’s next?

Hatch a few plans.

Bask in the Garden.

Olive for the moment.

The Bistro Group’s Lisa Ronquillo-Along, chief marketing officer; Josh Boutwood, corporate chef; and RC Tiongson, chief operating officer.

* * *

Olive Garden, which is part of The Bistro Group, is at 2F, South Wing, SM Mall of Asia, Seaside Boulevard, Pasay City. Follow Olive Garden on Facebook and Instagram.

OLIVE GARDEN

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