Saturday, August 11, 2007

Carino's Italian Grill or Olive Garden?

Over the course of the summer Cheryl and I have eaten at five times - in The Olive Garden in Charleston, WV, Greensborro, NC, Florence, SC, Augusta, GA, and Seiverville, TN. We'd seen ads on television recently for Carino's Italian Grill and decided to compare the two on a recent trip to East Tennessee.

On Monday, August 6, we ate at the Olive Garden in Sevierville. On Thursday we ate at Johnny Carino's a couple of miles away in Pigeon Forge. I had Venetian Apricot Chicken at the Olive Garden and lemon Rosemary Chicken at Carino's.

The most immediate contrasts between the two restaurants as I entered Johnny Carino's had to do with space and decor. Olive Garden restaurants are partitioned into rooms that hold a dozen or so tables; Carino's was one large open space. While Olive Garden color schemes may vary from room to room, they are generally light colors in moderate lighting. Carino's was a mix of black and brown earth tones in low lighting.

The acoustics struck me as radically different. Carino's employees an open kitchen concept so that you can see the chef's working. Unfortunately, the cleaning area can also be heard in the dining room. While there was a nice sort of jazz or big band music background at Carino's, the dominate sound was dishes being washed. And being in one large room made the audio environment seem like a high school cafeteria. The Olive Garden's system or dividing the restaurant up into rooms makes conversation across a table much easier, cuts distractions a great deal, and make their music enjoyable. The darker color scheme made Carino's seem a little oppressive to me.

Whether it is a regular occurrence or just the luck of the draw, our waitress at Carino's was a novice. She was polite and well-meaning; but she told us that it was her first day on the job and she fumbled with everything she touched. Politeness and smiles aside, I don't remember ever having had wait staff at the Olive Garden seem so insecure and it made me wonder about the difference in training between the two restaurants.

Perhaps it was the waitress's inexperience, but it seemed to me like we were being asked to hurry at Carino's. The restaurant was full, people were waiting, and their solution was to ask us to eat quicker. It wasn't that blunt. But I'd had my food about seven minutes when the waitress asked if I wanted a box.

The Olive Garden wasn't perfect. We had a child with us and the child's food (a small pizza) didn't come as ordered. As a teacher I was offended on behalf of the child; but the little girl didn't know the difference...

The crux of the matter, though, is the food I suppose. At both restaurants the chicken was, well, exquisite. The flavor of the apricot chicken at the Olive Garden was surprisingly pleasant; I was amazed at how fresh and entertaining the grill lemon rosemary chicken at Carino's was.

For some reason the Olive Garden's menu often doesn’t include both a starch and a vegetable on the same plate as the entree. Salad, breadstick (which are excellent), and a meat with just veggies... The asparagus with my apricot chicken at the Olive Garden was young and tender; the broccoli was tough and reminded me of chewing corduroy from an old pair of pants that had dry rot. They should replace the broccoli with Tuscan potatoes in my opinion.

At Carino's I got angel hair pasta with my chicken. It was done perfectly in a perfect sauce. The green beans were the sort of warm-and-crisp texture I enjoy (my wife thinks they should be cook another hour). And the addition of a little spinach, some diced tomatoes, and a slice of lemon added color to the plate.

  • The Olive Garden makes much better salad than Carino's
  • The Olive Garden's breadsticks are more enjoyable that the loaf of crusty bread Carino's brings to the table
  • The atmosphere at Olive Garden is much more pleasant
  • The Olive Garden has a larger menu to choose from
  • The two restaurants have about the same pricing scale
  • The Olive Garden has a better trained wait staff
  • The entrees at both restaurants are excellent
In the absence of an Olive Garden, I'd gladly eat at a Carino's. But when their commercials poke fun at the Olive Garden and present Carino's as "Not your garden variety Italian restaurant" their words come back to haunt them....


Abi Tapia said...

Thanks for the comparison. We were deciding between these two tonight and your info really helped!

Abi Tapia said...

Thanks for your comparison. We were deciding between these two tonight and your info really helped!