One way to tell if a restaurant is part of a corporate chain is to look at the amount of printed matter it generates. Themes are another dead giveaway.
In the case of the Olive Garden, which recently opened in Oxnard, they've latched onto the fall theme of "Roman pasta holiday" and practically printed it to death. They even designed paper covers for their flower vases to go along with the theme. To top it off, every bill comes with a customer questionnaire.
The Olive Garden is a perfect example of corporate America designing a palatable dining-out experience for the masses. It is also reputed to be among the best of the national chains. Judging from how busy the restaurant has been every time I've been there, they must be doing something right; number crunchers at corporate headquarters should be chortling happily.
Oxnard's Olive Garden holds about 300 diners, shuttled to their seats by a series of hosts. It has been cleverly divided with glass and lots of greenery into manageable eating areas. Large green umbrellas, suspended from the ceiling, hover over certain tables like a blessing.
The prices are not astonishingly cheap, but the Olive Garden does dish up substantial amounts of food. Furthermore, most diners have probably just come from the nearby Price Club, feeling good about saving huge amounts of money on 500 plastic gloves, 12,000 cotton swabs and a five-year supply of laundry soap.
One thing the Olive Garden has done impressively is train the staff to an admirable level of enthusiasm and courtesy. One night, out in the parking lot, a cheerful waitress actually wanted to know if I had liked my dinner. I asked her why she thought the restaurant was doing so well. "Because we give good value for the money," she said proudly.
Indeed, they serve unlimited amounts of soup or icy, crisp salads with inoffensive dressings, along with chewy bread sticks that are almost as big as hotdog buns.
The entrees that follow are generous, too. Most people leave the place clutching little red cardboard carry-out boxes.
An Italian appetizer sampler was strictly for fried-food lovers. Venetian stuffed shrimp were apparently stuffed with nothing, while mushrooms were filled with what tasted like pleasant turkey dressing. Mozzarella triangles were thick, crusty and piping hot. Best of all were the simple fried zucchini slices.
I found some of the entrees, like \o7 mostacciola\f7 with chicken and artichoke hearts ($10.95) quite good. The northern Italian plate ($12.95) provided samples of several entrees, which ran the gamut from great to disappointing.
Veal \o7 piccata \f7 was standard, but the fettuccine Alfredo--wonderfully cheesy and buttery--tasted like a fine, traditional \o7 spaghetti al burro.\f7 Venetian grilled chicken had paper-thin slices of chicken in a curious teriyaki-flavored sauce. The vegetables were nicely undercooked, but bland.
Lasagna ($8.50) had a nice garlicky flavor, and a mushy texture, while the steak \o7 Toscana, \f7 though again well-flavored, was quite tough.
The ravioli were fine, filled with sweet \o7 manicotti \f7 cheese that contrasted nicely with the tomato sauce. I also like the garden fillet, a simply prepared orange roughy fish, covered with tiny chopped vegetables, green onions, tomatoes and mushrooms.
If the chocolate mousse pie is any indication of the caliber of the desserts, then just don't look out the window. It had a cookie-like crust with a hint of cinnamon and a delicious chocolate filling, so rich and buttery it could have been frosting. It was one more reason to make that waitress proud.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Olive Garden, 1891 Ventura Blvd., Oxnard, 983-6656. Lunch and dinner Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Full bar, all major credit cards, dinner for two, food only, $26-$40.