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Olive Garden Has a Food Truck and Bostonians Are Pissed About It

When the food truck rolled into Boston's North End this weekend, to pass out free breadstick sandwiches, some called it "an insult to everyone selling Italian food [here] for more than 100 years."

All photos by the author

Typically, it's only in hindsight that we can pinpoint the moment at which a cultural trend starts to die. When it comes to food trucks, particularly in Boston, where they've reached the peak of culinary coolness, there is no such ambiguity: The time of death was Thursday, June 11, 2015. That's the day that Olive Garden's Breadstick Nation Tour food truck rolled into Boston, hauling with it thousands of salted loaves and a metric ton of identity baggage.

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The truck posted up in Boston's bustling Faneuil Hall, where it stood for four days handing out free breadstick sandwiches, promoting the chain's newest menu item. Unsurprisingly, many of the area's other food trucks were not pleased. Some argued that the city shouldn't have issued Olive Garden's truck a permit at all, since food truck permits are relatively competitive in Boston, and the prime real estate where the Olive Garden truck was allowed to park isn't typically available for use.

Boston.com convened a forum of the city's grappa-snouted restauranteurs from the traditionally Italian enclave of the North End, home to dozens of Italian restaurants, who decried the presence of the food truck parking anywhere near their hallowed, cobblestone streets. "It's an insult to everyone in the North End selling Italian food for more than 100 years," groused one.

Frank DePasquale, owner of numerous restaurants in the vicinity, including Bricco, echoed the sentiment to me: "It is beyond any reasoning that I have to understand why anyone would want to eat that food when there is some of the best and most authentic Italian food in the country right here in the North End," he said, pointing out the abundance of options, from simple sandwich shops using wholesome breads, to what he called "high-end boutique Italian cuisine." "Visitors to the North End come here for our delicious variety of authentic cuisine," he said. "Not for the Olive Garden Food Truck."

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Of course, when it comes to any arguments about authenticity, the definition of the term is going to fluctuate depending on who is conducting the ideological symposium. Boston Globe food critic Devra First pushed back in a series of tweets over the weekend, writing: "The breadstick sandwiches may not be very good… Neither are some of the North End's 'authentic' restaurants. So let's not get hung up on 'authenticity.'"

She's not wrong. While there are certainly very many fine restaurants in the North End, and it's a neighborhood exceptionally rich in history, it's long since become a tourist trap and bridge-and-tunnel dining destination.

"The time to worry about authenticity in the North End was probably 40 years ago," Drew Starr, a close observer of the Boston restaurant scene, formerly of Eater, told me. "Half the restaurants have Sysco as their executive chef," he said, referencing the multinational food distribution conglomerate that services Olive Garden's parent company Darden Restaurants. "You can have the exact same frozen lasagna at your choice of a dozen restaurants there."

"The real motivations of the people bitching, I believe, have way less to do with Olive Garden than the fact it's competition. And it's hard to compete with free when you're already serving commodity food."

Italianicity aside, an Olive Garden truck, owned by Darden, a company with over $6 billion in annual sales, muscling its way onto the Boston food truck scene—and in particular, into the highly-trafficked neighborhood of Faneuil Hall—is further cause for concern. Some of Boston's food trucks, which have only been legal since 2011 and whose spaces are divvied out by a lottery system, were irked by a heavyweight corporation dipping its meat balls in the vodka sauce.

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"As long as they're parked somewhere safe, I don't really give a shit," Starr said of the location. "If standing outside in the sun eating awkward, mass-produced stunt food is more attractive to someone than the best goddamn Mexican tortas in the world at Tenoch [Mexican food truck], well, whatever, that's just how shit works."

But, he said, "just let local trucks do it too. Or at least charge a fortune to the brands that want to do giveaways and put the money into the Public Market or to building a homeless shelter."

On Sunday afternoon, I found the Olive Garden truck parked in Faneuil Hall in the type of high-visibility, high-traffic spot most food trucks would give their left wheels for. The green and brown truck was covered in text prompts of varying degrees of appetizing: Love. Savor. Garlic. Food. Yum. Rihanna's "We Found Love" was blasting from its speakers, competing with the music bleeding over from a nearby team of dancers, around which a gaggle of slouch-shorted and anticipatory tourists circled. Magicians and bucket drummers plied their mystical arts.

I dutifully took my place in a line, about 20 people deep, which stretched back to a statue of Sam Adams overlooking the proceedings. "Statesman: incorruptible and fearless" read the plaque. You literally could not ask for a better spot for a food truck in Boston, unless maybe you pulled up on home plate at Fenway and Pablo Sandoval had a pocket full of $50 bills.

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The day before, James DiSabatino—owner of Roxy's Grilled Cheese, a favorite food truck in Boston that's since opened a brick and mortar space—told me he had just tried the Olive Garden breadstick sandwich. He quickly clarified that he didn't go out of his way to get it—"I don't want anyone to think I'm that type of guy"—but that once he saw it, a "morbid curiosity set in."

I asked him how it was. "They serve those breadsticks with just… shit… stuffed in the middle. Like a meatball and and a chicken parmesan one. I don't even know what they gave me when I took it, but I think it was meatball. It was exactly as disappointing as you would expect it to be," he said, as if offering the sandwich an epitaph.

In line, one of the greeters noticed me taking pictures, and encouraged me to use the hashtag #breadsticknation for a chance to win a year's supply of breadsticks.

I asked her how people had been responding so far. They served about 1,000 on the first day she was there, she estimated. A sign on the truck informed me that they would be videotaping everyone in the vicinity and if I did not consent to that, I should leave the area. In other words, by merely congregating in one of Boston's busiest markets, we were all consenting to become an extra in an Olive Garden commercial of some kind.

"People have been liking it," the greeter said. "It's free! Everybody loves free. And these are good… They're pretty good. Everyone's gonna get hungry sometimes."

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"This is what I secretly wanted for lunch," said a young woman walking by as she piloted a sandwich toward her open mouth. One of the Olive Garden employees took to a microphone to encourage passersby to stuff the breadstick sandwiches in their faces.

"This is a brand new lunch time item we just came out with last week, you can find them in all the stores," he said as John Legend's "All of Me" played. "There's absolutely no catch! We don't want any information, and you don't have to sign up for anything! We just want you to come try the sandwich."

Fair enough. I got my sandwich and skulked off to try it away from the crowd, like a dog that's dragged a dead squirrel under the porch. The breadsticks were breaded with salt, and the chicken was breaded with bread. The proceedings were lightly sauced, although I detected the sweet tang of tomato somewhere in there. Cheese was also involved. I felt sad.

I was not the least bit hungry, but I took a few bites out of professional responsibility. To be honest, though, I could probably eat five of these and love every minute of it, then spend the next week of my life regretting it.

Joe Benzon, the man with the microphone, had just come from the truck's first stop in New York City last week. He was the the tour manager for the truck. He was very nice and enthusiastic and professional. There are four of them, he explained, and they'll be on the road throughout the country for the next couple of months. The number of people they'll serve will vary from city to city; in Pittsburgh, they'll be at an event with a couple hundred thousand, but here he estimated between 5,000 and 10,000.

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"I'm not saying this just because I work for them, honest to god, it's been 100 percent completely positive reviews," he said of the guests they'd served. "I haven't heard one person say anything negative all week in New York and all week here in Boston, which can be tough cities with tough food critics. But people have loved it."

I pointed out that there had been pushback from other North End restaurant owners, but Benzon shrugged it off. "We've gotten tons of good publicity and good press and buzz around the sandwich and around this food truck, and we just wanted to come to the city of Boston and give as many people as many free sandwiches as they like. That's all we're trying to do."

He assured me they'd gone through all the appropriate permitting channels in a process that took months—"everything from permitting to making the custom vehicle wrapped with graphics"—and that, so far, the Olive Garden team was enthused with how everything had turned out.

Still, I couldn't help but think about what DiSabatino had told me about how difficult operating a food truck in Boston has become of late. When the program first launched, there were about 12 or 14 trucks on the streets—now there's over 80. The competition is fierce.

"The city created a program in 2011 that was great for 14 trucks, but they haven't adjusted it at all for the amount of trucks," DiSabatino explained. "It's more or less same amount of spots shared by many more people making it very difficult for people to make a living."

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He wasn't offended about the so-called inauthenticity of Olive Garden's Italian fare, but as he explained, "I guess I am offended that the city would allow a corporate sponsored food truck to park wherever it wants, but also really restricts the trucks that are just small businesses trying to make a living."

Back in Faneuil Hall, a field trip of teens in matching T-shirts were taking group selfies in front of the Olive Garden truck. One of the mothers sprayed sunscreen on her daughter's neck while a nearby man cursed to himself about—and this is too on-the-nose Boston to make up—how the Yankees suck. The line had grown.

"Yo, where's my sandwich?" a dude in line yelled out.

They were coming fresh out of the oven any minute, Benzon said. Then he took the microphone again and shouted, "I love Boston!"

Follow Luke O'Neil on Twitter.