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It's been a year since her original review ran in the North Dakotoa's Grand Forks Herald, creating an Internet sensation. The 86-year-old columnist, after 30 years of churning out copy on truck stop food and fast food joints in relative obscurity, has been catapulted to food critic fame.
Now that book, called Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 100 Reviews, is set to be released in August. Hagerty told New York's Daily News that restaurant reviews were the furthest thing from her mind when she started writing them. Hagerty says she's found her foodie stardom has given her a new view on the food at Olive Garden and the media world in general.
It's a battle for market share, one that seems squarely aimed at luring in those fickle Millennials or that subsequent group widely called Generation Z.
We thought it was a fitting time to pay a visit to these two mega-chains (Carrabba's boasts 240 locations nationally, Olive Garden has more than 800 in North America), stopping into a South Tampa Carrabba's outpost and the Olive Garden location that opened in February on West Shore. In my mind, Carrabba's has always been a tick more expensive than the Garden (with Macaroni Grill and Maggiano's a couple ticks above it). Darden shareholders have been pushing for the restaurant giant to spin off or sell Olive Garden and Red Lobster. At lunchtime, the main idea is speed: In order to compete with fast food and grab-and-go concepts, they've trained servers to assess diners' time crunch and to respond accordingly.



Lingering at the deep-fryer for a minute, Olive Garden has added arancini, classic Sicilian risotto balls that are bread-crumbed and fried. In all, improvements like mini desserts (shades of Seasons 52, another Darden chain), Tuscan-style wings (a nod to Anthony's Coal Fired's success with that dish) and hummus (it's white bean, so Italian-ish) give Olive Garden a fighting chance. The single best dish we tried from the new menu was a gorgeous vanilla bean panna cotta served in a jar and topped with sweet-tart fresh raspberries ($6). Before that, though, I was impressed with new prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin medallions (a real steal at $13.90).
Tomato cream sauce is the dominant flavor in the new rigatoni Martino ($14), with planks of grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato and sliced mushroom, as well as in the shrimp and scallop linguine alla vodka ($15), the latter's vodka demure enough that the sauces tasted identical.
Since the deeply awful economic woes of 2008 and 2009, the restaurant industry has been slow to bounce back, with sit-down restaurants losing out to fast food and the like (read: places you don't have to tip). Carrabba's, owned by Bloomin' Brands, and Olive Garden, owned by Darden Restaurants, seem in a race to reinvent themselves. Theirs aren't quite as zesty as the new ones on the Carrabba's menu (those are studded with fennel sausage and plopped in a slightly spicy marinara, $6), but it's an appealing shared finger food ($4.50), as is the duet of herb-flecked chicken meatballs wading in marinara ($4). Chicken Toscana ($13.99) makes use of the chain's new Piastra flat-top grill, which gives meats an even, deep sear on both sides.
But there's a lot of competition at the $15 Italian-meal-that-includes-soup-or-salad price point, with 15 of those anchoring Carrabba's newly debuted menu.


In recent months, I've eaten overly rubbery versions of this Italian custard at a number of high-end restaurants, and Carrabba's got it plushly perfect. In the past, I've felt that what makes a lot of Carrabba's dishes taste good is liberal use of cream or butter a€” this one eschews that in favor of deep savoriness imparted by wood smoke and prosciutto, counterbalanced by a touch of sweetness in a port wine fig sauce, nicely accessorized with a passel of tender-crisp green beans.
To my mind, a more contemporary dish was the new grilled Tuscan skewers ($15), juicy sirloin sandwiched between soft grilled cherry tomatoes and lengths of red onion, all drizzled with a simple but appealing red wine sauce.
It's clear that both of these restaurant giants have a lot of smart people working furiously to keep pace with food trends while giving customers perceived value. They both recently launched dramatically revised menus incorporating a number of culinary buzzwords: small plates for sharing, lighter fare and smaller portions (and prices), specialty items with mix-and-match customizability, hand-helds, gluten-free dishes, kale, craft beer, mini dessert indulgences and a€” the two words that summed up 2013 a€” salted caramel. A just-released new logo is getting mixed feedback, but the new menu features a number of fresh and welcome ideas. The jury's out on whether the launch of new menus at Olive Garden and Carrabba's will keep both concepts healthy in a competitive market, but both offer a number of appealing dishes that keep dining out affordable for most of us.



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