I often compare shitty places to Olive Garden or Carraba’s or these big chain Italian restaurants. Outside of referencing bird genitalia, making terrible comparisons to these places is my favorite way to measure something. It’s mostly because of their ubiquity, but also the boundless confidence they have in their terrible food is comical.
If you were to take a look at one of their commercials you would think that walking into Olive Garden would combine the communal aspects of Cheers with the thoughtful preparations of a rustic Tuscan trattoria. If you, for some wild reason, haven’t been to an Olive Garden, their value prop is to provide literally endless amounts of food for as little money and service as possible. This is done through what I imagine is some Infinity Stone type apparatus that generates endless Hospitaliano until you’re drowned internally with Alfredo sauce and Super Mario type minions carry away your corpse to a big machine that makes Giant Sausage Stuffed Rigatoni. Such is the never ending circle of life.
Olive Garden has the same feel good origins that a lot of underdog stories have: created in a lab by a $20 billion global manufacturing conglomerate. Yes, General Mills, are the founders of Oliver Garden. The same people who make your Meatball Pizza Bowl are also making your Lucky Charms, and Cheerios…and Missile Defense Systems………..and the submersible that found the wreckage of the Titanic.
The first Olive Garden opened in 1982 in the same place where I assume all evil restaurant chains are made – Orlando, Florida. In seven years they became the fastest growing division of General Mills, adding an additional 145 locations. By 1995 they were spun off into Darden Restaurants, along with Red Lobster and other General Mills restaurants you loved in your teens. In 2010, they generated over $3 billion in annual sales, the most out of the Darden restaurants, and 5x greater than their closest competitor, Carrabba’s.
Today, Olive Garden is justifiably under assault. A few years back you might have seen this amazing 300-slide deck created by activist investors looking to reshape OG. The deck contained fun slides like the one below, and scolded Olive Garden for not giving even the slightest of fucks about their food, like not salting their pasta water and serving chicken atop vegetable lasagna, among other sick hedge fund burns. When a fucking banker has to teach you how to make pasta your only recourse is seppoku.
At the end of the day, they attributed Olive Garden’s decent into cultural laughing stock on diminished quality of product, loss of identity and devaluing the customer experience. Olive Garden tried to take the corner away from your neighborhood red sauce joint but ultimately failed because it lacks what makes red sauce joints so attractive to your average person – authenticity.
I’m defining a red sauce joint as a place that serves things like chicken parm, linguini and clams, baked ziti, cheap chianti and possibly pizza. It has dated decor and service ranges from adopting your table into their extended family to perfunctory. It will never wow you, but you leave satisfied, partially because you just consumed 3,000 calories of melted mozzarella, but also because you never really had high hopes to begin with.
Go to any town in the country, no matter how big or small, and you will be able to find at least one shitty Chinese food spot and one shitty red sauce joint, and now probably a shitty Mexican place. The boom of Italian immigration to this country in the late 1800’s helped red sauce joints become ubiquitous, just as the repeal of the Magnuson Act lead to the boom of Chinese restaurants mid-century, and the current era’s wave of Mexican and Central American immigration. You combine these trends with American capitalism and a willingness to deep-fry old-world foods and drench them in a sauce palatable for new-world mouths and you have a recipe for the booming growth of these cuisines.
While the growth of red sauce may still be continuing in flyover states, it has been supplanted as the country’s fastest growing cuisine. We are in a place with so many good food options that people want to try new things and no longer have to settle for red sauce. I’d bet that at this point you’re pretty much only going to red sauce joints out of pure utility, or to visit them like a museum. Sure you get new Italian spots like Corto that make obscure pastas and highlight their mastery of cooking beans, but you’re not getting a chicken parm and mussels marinara there.
In Jersey City, my go to red sauce joint is Laico’s, though if there is another FBI raid at Barge Inn they might take the top spot. Laico’s is the promise that Olive Garden makes manifested into reality. The food is good, the service is phenomenal, and the price is right.
Laico’s opened a decade before the first Olive Garden on a non-descript residential street in Greenville. They started as a pizzeria and neighborhood bar, and then added a full menu for shits and giggles. If you haven’t been to Laico’s, that last sentence is literal. It’s not on the corner, or in some carved out little shopping mall, it’s surrounded by 10 houses on either side of it and has remained largely unchanged since then.
One of the first things you’ll notice is they have valet parking. This isn’t talked about enough. There is a loyal crowd of Uncle Franks and Aunt Debbie’s who ate at Laico’s over the 40 years and then moved out into the suburban hinterlands. The only reason they are coming back is because of the parking. Uber isn’t permeating this demo and having someone to navigate the parking situation is an insane value add to the over 50 crowd.
For those who have yet to go let me be absolutely clear, this isn’t exactly a location conducive to valet parking. There’s not a ton of space in that picture above and that was taken at 1PM on a Tuesday. Watching the valet in real time can get pretty exciting. 15 cars occupy the space typically reserved for 4 or 5, and this precarious geometry is navigated at no cost, except for a well earned tip. This is the first thing you experience at Laico’s – extra work being done unnecessarily to create value for customers and improve the customer experience.
Inside checks all the boxes for a classic red sauce joint. Dated decor, an old wood bar, an overly accommodating and friendly host. The vibe is 8th grade graduation dinner and civil servant date night. The air smells like garlic. The place is loud with happy diners. I’d actually recommend going when it’s fairly busy to get the best of the room.
It’s important to remember that you’re not here for culinary excellence. The food is satisfying, but most of what they do is on the good side of average, save one excellent dish I’ll get to later. What you’re here for is the experience, the nostalgia, there’s are almost no flat notes and the overall product is much greater than the sum of its parts.
When you sit down, you get your big delicious salad with their very special homemade dressing (it’s good, but calm down) and loaf of warm bread on the house. Choose from a long list of Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Mondavi sangria fodder, or get a Manhattan like a classy adult. For apps, get calamari, some of the best I’ve ever had. The burrata and honey with heirloom tomatoes is a surprising winner too. Get that with your calamaaad to have a nice texture break from the crispy.
For entrees, you can get all of your standard red sauce fare, and you’ll be fine if you get that stuff, seriously, no wrong answer here, just opportunity cost. Chicken piccatta and lobster raviolis, all fine. But the thing you go to Laico’s for is the Elephant Ear. If you only go once, this is your order.
The Elephant Ear is a bone-in pork chop parmesan – beaten thin, breaded and fried like a schnitzel, then tastefully smothered in red sauce and cheese, then broiled. It is the blue collar version of the very famous veal parm at Carbone, except this is about a third of the price. I’ve had both, and if I’m being completely honest, they’re equally good. If I could have either for free right now I’m not sure which one I would eat, which is about as good of a recommendation as I can make. It hits all of the notes you want in your parmesan, but unlike chicken and veal which are easy to mute with cheese and tomato, the pork speaks just a little louder so you can pull the protein through its dressing. It also just chews better than chicken, and doesn’t make me think about what possibly happened to the veal. Order this and don’t think twice.
The only down note on the entire thing is the lifeless and pathetic side of pasta you get with your meal. It looks like the pasta emoji and has about the same flavor profile. It’s lifeless and if you have the option to sub for anything else I’d do that. It also goes to show how the biggest negative I can conjure on this place is a fucking side dish.
If you’re not dead by this point, order desert and an anisette. The deserts are fine, I like the tiramisu. Whatever you do, go to Laico’s before you sit down at another red sauce joint and revel in the humble aspirations of a restaurant who stays in their lane and prioritizes your dining experience above of growth.
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