Day 34: This is Starting to Become a Habit

I used to be so good at keeping up with these blogs but things change in the world.

Here’s a few other things that have changed since our last Olive Garden visit. For one thing, they’ve been working on updating the restaurant–

I think if there’s nothing else to learn from this blog it’s that “new” is a relative term.

Anyway, we went in to see what was “new” and found a couple of items.

One was the kids menu which is finally different than the first 33 we offered James:

Like it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even care how crappy this picture is or that I didn’t bother to photograph the entire menu or whatever. Because I know there’s always going to be another visit, another chance to explore the same wilderness we’ve been wobbling through for the last seven months. Another chance to exhaust every detail in this place.

They’re changing out some lamps, too:

Nothing says “spaghetti at your Italian grandma’s place” like this Art Deco-aspiring mess.

But you know, it’s the people in your life that make things new even when everything else gets very, very old.

In this case the people in our lives were the old people sitting behind us. I could hear bits of their conversation, and it added a note of novelty to the experience. I’ll share their wisdom instead of my own banality.

Old people on drinks: “Well, you know, I don’t know much about all this stuff. I’ve only had a mixed drink a couple of times!”

(Sure, sure)

Old people on education: “Well, I guess the ‘three Rs’ don’t apply anymore!”

(It’s so easy to pick on the education system)

Old people on given names, after our server introduces himself to them: “Well, Josiah! That’s a nice biblical name!”

(These folks didn’t even bother to ask about MY nice biblical name)

So I guess it’s true what they (?) say: what’s old is new again.


Item 1: linguine, meatballs, mushroom Alfredo

Item 2: see above


Breadsticks: 3 (oof)

Weight: 168 (oof)

New things: 0-♾

Day 33: Mario’s Story

I actually wrote “Dave 33” first for the title. Crazy!


In the little town of Rome, Italy, a child came into the world who was Italian and his parents made sure he knew that from day one. Usually it was in conjunction with some sort of backhanded compliment or backhanded insult. “Mario! Do you know any famous Italians who knock over the trash can? No, of course not. We must have been mistaken.”

Mario went along with this because he didn’t have any choice. His parents weren’t all bad, they simply had no sense of imagination. He could surely imagine an Italian sneaking the unbaked cookie dough, or neglecting to put away his shoes, or bringing home stray dogs to his mother. But Mr. and Mrs. Marinetti had no such creativity or vision. In their world, an Italian had quick feet for kicking the soccer ball, keen eyesight for avoiding tourist-driven Vespas, and long, strong arms for pulling the pizzas out of the dedicated pizza oven.

It was this final failure that nagged at Mario the most, and it was the insult that pushed his parents past their good humored jests into outright anger and derision. For even as the rest of him grew longer and leaner and tauter and taller, Mario P. Marinetti’s arms stayed the same length. As the rest of him grew and grew through childhood and adolescence, into young adulthood, his arms remained the same, perhaps they shrunk, if anything. The doctors weren’t concerned. “He’ll grow into them,” they always said, which made no sense to Mario or his parents but they understood it really meant, “Goodbye.”

Though he couldn’t reach far enough up the pizza paddle to pull pies, Mario grew up fascinated by fire and food. “I’m going to be a great chef when I grow up,” he’d tell his parents. Holding back both laughter and tears, they would only say, “of course, dear, but perhaps Italian cuisine might not be your thing. Because of, you know, your little arms and all that.”

Mario smiled and worked hard anyway. He lucked into a job at an American place in Rome. He couldn’t wash dishes with his short arms, so they had him working the deep fryer, the one place in the kitchen where short arms protected rather than endangered you. He couldn’t have reached into the hot oil if he’d wanted to. And with how everyone at the restaurant treated him, sometimes he did.

You should know that there are very strict rules about pizza-making in Italy. you need arms long enough to support a massive pie as it slips in and out of a gigantic, thousand-year-old stone oven. Pizza-serving restaurants are regulated by a government commission. They bring out measuring tape and everybody from the general manager to the busboy is measured at least once a year. Any short-armed cooks will get you fined, and if they aren’t fired, you could be shut down. Nobody would take the risk.

Nobody but this American place that wasn’t even supposed to be serving pizza. One day, the head chef, Mickey, threatened to quit if he didn’t get control over the menu. The manager threw up his hands, not knowing what else to do, and let him go. “Make anything you want!” he bellowed, before slamming the door on his tiny office in the back. The chef grinned and told his staff they were going to start serving the most American thing he could think of–Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza.

The rest of the chefs were horrified, but Mario just stood there, staring, fascinated.

“You in, kid?” Mickey asked.

Mario nodded.

“Then roll up your sleeves–oh, I see, they already are rolled up.”

Mario nodded, sadly.

“Never mind, they’ll shut us down anyway. But not before we make something worth getting fired.”

Mario ran to the market, buying entire hams and pineapples, and rushing back to the restaurant before anybody could ask to see his pizza license.

That night, Mickey and Mario made forty American pizzas. They didn’t advertise–they couldn’t have, legally. But people came. So many people. The restaurant had the best night it had ever had. They had to chase people away with pineapple rinds after the food ran out.

The next day the GM quit and Mickey made Mario his sous chef. They paid off the Arm Measuring Commission and the restaurant was a roaring success until one day Mario’s tiny arms slipped and he fell into the oven. Rest in Peace, Mario.


Item 1: linguine, meat sauce, vegetables


Breadsticks: 5!

Weight: for it.

Mario: short-armed, but never short-handed.


 

Day 32: A Portrait of the Artist as a Well-Fed Man

Usually I’m behind the camera but today I got confused and reversed the polarity.

Almost there…

Stay on target…

Let’s eat this thing so we can go home!

Oddly enough they forgot the onions on the salad. Chrissi asked them to remove dressing and croutons as per her obscure and convoluted religious diet convictions, and I guess they got a little zealous and cast out the onions as well.

Which is fine because onions at best are too spicy and at worst are vegetarian worms.

Yet even as I ate my sanitized salad, I couldn’t help but miss the onions. They do add color–both to my plate and my palate. Without them you lose a bit of fire.

There’s probably some lesson in that but I’m really not in the mood to tease it out tonight.

Instead here’s a picture of a lamp. The most important piece is the chain swinging it, which serves to represent our unbreakable link to this restaurant.

Just like in the photo, it seems that the world beyond the Olive Garden is so close, so easy to enter and slip away. But, perpetually, the chains of endless pasta bring us back.

Is there freedom in these free noodles?

Turns out there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Although you can get one free of onions.


1: linguine, shrimp (they added extra garlic for some reason and that was great!), mushroom Alfredo

2: linguine, mushroom Alfredo (supposed to be the same thing again but they must have realized they gave me too much roasted garlic and took it out of my shrimp this time around)


Breadstick: 1

Weight: 167

Height: 67


Day 31: A Whole Month of Olives

Month of Olives, Mount of Olives. What have we learned? What have we given?

Da da da. Dada.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Like T. S. Eliot wandering through The Waste Land, I have to ask myself–

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

All these littered crumbs of breadstick, half-empty bowls of marinara, and leftover leaves of browning lettuce mark a trail. But where does it lead?

Eliot’s way through the wasteland was a simple quest: the desiccated man just needed a drink of water.

What do I need? Obviously after eating so much sodium this past half year, I, too, require a big glass of hydration. One breadstick the other night was so thoroughly coated in salt as to almost eclipse the point of edibility. “It’s one stick,” somebody in the kitchen must have said, clutching a salt shaker (or, more likely, a salt-shooting rubber hose). Without remorse, the cook probably shook out a little more from the salting nozzle before throwing the bread in the basket for our server to collect. “One stick of salt won’t kill nobody.” Nobody but Lot’s wife, I guess.

But when you’re walking through the wasteland and living in the drought of the ages, you have to start to wonder after a while about whether or not that’s true. It’s like the straw and the camel’s back: which salt crystal will be the one that pushes your blood pressure over the edge? Which drop of oil will shut up the last artery? Which modified synthetic animal protein will scream its way up your bloodstream until it reaches the center of your brain and explodes impossibly, inevitably?

Maybe this breadstick is one too many. Maybe this is the last one.

The wasteland is where we realize that death will cure us, that drought can end and be born unto the waters, but it’s also the place where the first drop you drink is the last one: the refreshment you find means you have died and resurrected.

Like everything else in life, if it’s good for you, it’s going to hurt.

What do they feed you after you cross the wasteland? Apparently it’s some chicken gnocchi soup. It’s not bad, exactly, but there’s a ton of grease that, when left to cool, begins floating at the top, like the evil in men’s souls. I’m picking on it here, but really what I’m saying is there were only four of those little gnocchi guys in there and that felt super weak, despite the fact that I could have asked for a refill. I didn’t, out of principle (What principle, you ask. At this point, I have no clue.), but in retrospect that was probably a good idea, considering how much sodium I was getting elsewhere from the meal.

After six months of olives (in the salads I order each time), tonight was the first time I ordered the soup instead. And as disappointing as it was, I think I’m back to salad.

As per the last post, my photography sucks, but I mean look at that mess. So much pointless oil rising up to meet you.

That’s not a blessing, but a curse.

Also, here’s the weird picture of some kid that was behind me. He’s holding a paper (?) balloon at a fake (?) gelato counter. I’d love somebody to explain Olive Garden decor to me someday. Somewhere there’s a massive warehouse full of the sets they used for this crazy, crazy photoshoot. At least I hope so.

And it’s either found in the Twilight Zone, or at the far, far end of the wasteland.


1: Linguine, meat sauce, breaded chicken (don’t ask)

2: same as it ever was (see above) (This was an experiment to see if I’d get the entire breaded chicken breast that they obviously had to microwave. They cut it in half, as per orders. I don’t recommend the breaded chicken unless you’re feeling about five years old which I am most of the time.)


Breadsticks: 2

Weight: I ran this morning!

Waste Lands: only one but that’s plenty, it turns out.

Day 30: Spliced to an Olive Garden Booth

Olive Garden ahoy! Also, avast!

Whenever I take photographs they seem to embody a sense of motion, dynamism. It’s as though you are being thrust right through the two-dimensional approximation of reality that my phone lens captured and forced to make your way through a nonsensical reality that pitches and heaves, rises and plunges in turn.

This is not by design. It would be hubris for me to presume that when I aim my camera lens at life I’m actually capturing an image on purpose. No, I’m just trying to blunder after a visual marker can use to remember the day. That’s why after multiple photo attempts, the above picture of brown vinyl is the best representation I can offer you of my booth bench. Brown vinyl. Yikes. As bad as my photography is, the Olive Garden interior designers (may they rest in peace, because there is no way this restaurant was designed within any contemporary lifetime) did me no favors. Obviously they did not intend for people to be marching through their restaurants taking pictures of their food and tables and benches, but it’s like a brown plastic bag of bumps you’re supposed to get comfortable with. Neutral tones, I get it. But is brown even neutral? It masquerades as one, like cream or tan, but brown like this isn’t really neutral at all. It stands out. And there’s nothing worse than a seat that stands.

Anyway, what’s great is this particular seat rocks. Not in the “cool” way, but in the dangerous way. Like, the whole thing rocks from left to right. I don’t know what happened, but some part of the cushion either deflated, broke its bonds, or grew wings, and the result is a wooden-colored beam rocking from starboard to port. Or is it larboard?

The seat has become the sea. The settee has become the ship. The seated has become the sailor.

When I was practicing verses from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner last fall, I taught James two of the important bits:

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

At the time, he could recite most of this quite well, although both of us have forgotten most of the poem by now. He still likes the poem, though, which–no doubt inspired by our Olive Garden journey–he renamed, Rime of the Ancient Marinera. I’m not making that up (always the hat tip to Dave Barry).

So now, finally, tonight, I have the chance to become the Ancient Marinera, rocking back and forth across the silent still seas, swimming between snakes of linguine and blood-red bowls of marinara. The sunny lamp shines down at us with an unblinking eye.

Like Captain Ahab, spliced to his whale, I am now forever inextricably linked to the Olive Sea.

My seat, rocking now, slowly, working with the carbohydrates to put me to sleep on my own Pequod, my own ocean of Italian cuisine.

 

My white whale may be made of alfredo, and my albatross is no bigger than a pair meatballs, but, like Ishmael and the Ancient Mariner, I knew what I was getting myself into. Our yearlong voyage to Italy was no mistake.

Ishmael said it best:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly [March] in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before [bus stops], and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my [fanatical rages] get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s [butts] off—then, I account it high time to get to [The Olive Garden] as soon as I can.

At least, I think that’s what he said.


1: linguine, breaded shrimp, mushroom alfredo

2: lnguine, meatballs, marinara


Breadsticks: 2

Weight: 166

Thar: She Blows!