Olive Garden: the Pinnacle of Pasta, the Epitome of Eggplant Parmesan, and the Heavenly Gates of “Gnocchi.” It is the Italian staple in every major city, and millions lovingly embrace its warm “Italian” atmosphere yearly. That is, if you’re an American.
For the Harding students visiting the University campus in Florence, Italy this summer, Olive Garden seems farther than just an ocean away. Just the other day at the Villa, the 15th century home that is now the overseas campus for the students, the Italian cooks and Mona Shackleford, one of the program directors, prepared a meal they like to call, “A Taste of Italy.” The students anxiously took their seats, ready for spaghetti, lasagna, and the Olive Garden staple, chicken parmesan. In hindsight, someone should’ve laughed loudly at the sight. In reality, what came out of the Villa kitchen was a beautiful array of Tuscan cuisine that’s majesty was perhaps lost on some of the visiting Americans.
Like every proper Italian meal, the lunch was divided into courses: antipasti, the first course, the second course, and dessert. For starters, the staff brought out trays of bite-sized appetizers with ingredients like gorgonzola and pecorino cheeses, walnuts, honey, pears, liver patè, tomatoes, basil, sausage, salami, an Italian speciality bologna called mortadella, and a Tuscan favorite, a soup made from tomatoes, basil, and day-old bread. Most of these things the students sampled gladly with only a few worried glances at the liver. Some picked favorites with a grin, but the overall consensus was that everyone was slightly overwhelmed at the sheer amount of food in front of them. But, the staff was unrelenting.
For the next round of dishes, the Italian “primi,” a giant silver pot was placed upon the dining room table, and the students leaned forward anxiously. Bowls were passed, and soon each person had a serving of tagliatelle pasta in a sauce with duck in front of them. This was perhaps one of the most controversial dishes of the day. Some sopped up the gamey sauce with the “schiaciatta” bread at their table, while others pushed the bowl away from them in confusion at the striking difference between the dish and “traditional” American spaghetti. The giant pot on the table did not last long, however, as the second course was following close behind.
After Mona cleared away the duck pasta, a two-foot long platter started floating between the tables, filled with an unidentifiable meat covered in olives and a “pomodoro” sauce, or traditional tomato sauce. For most Tuscans, this is a commonplace meat, but for the Americans, this rabbit is a new adventure. Claiming fullness, many of the students refused the rabbit, but the Italians present at the lunch fought over who could get the dish first. It certainly was an exciting step in the cultural immersion for the students! But honestly, it’s not surprising most students could not eat this second course given the ginormous meal they had already eaten.
Deliciously topping off the entire luncheon, bowls of delicate coffee goodness were passed out, and the students’ faces brightened once again at the sight of a more well-known dish: tiramisu. Finishing up, spoons slowly scraped the sides of bowls as the room quietly slumped into a food-induced stupor. It would seem as if naps were the next thing on the menu that day.
Overall, the group as a whole learned quite a bit about the central Italian experience. Tuscans, for example, do not use a lot of garlic in most of their cooking, and do not add salt to their bread due to a centuries-long tradition. Wild game frequently graces their tables because of an abundance of wild boar, venison, rabbit, and duck in the area, drawn in by the plentiful vineyards and orchards. Olive oil is a much healthier substitute for butter, and all vegetables and fruits are eaten “in season,” not year round. Simplicity steeps from every task the people undertake from food making to architecture, but the painstaking love and attention given to every aspect of every task gives the land its rich history and artistry. Italians are a proud people in love with their ancestry, and the meal yesterday only reinforced this concept for our American students.
As a student, all I can say to our Italian hosts is thank you. May Olive Garden forever be replaced by the beautiful display of love we witnessed at lunch a few days ago.
Written by Hannah Holt [currently attending HUF]
For more information about HUF visit our website: www.harding.edu/international