In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible.   We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless.   Bon Apetito.

You know those Olive Garden commercials with a jovial Italian chef and pics of rolling Tuscan vineyards with quaint stone cottages with terra cotta roofs?    We are in that commercial.   Chef Paolo La Fata  (you’ve seen him in their commercials) picked us up at the Rome airport yesterday morning and we’ve been slipping into the ancient world of Etruscan and Roman architecture and vistas ever since.

Chef La Fata in Tuscany

Olive Garden Head Chef Paulo La Fata

Tuscan cooking staples

Staples in the Tuscan kitchen

Chef Paolo was at the exit from the international arrivals with his smiling face and Olive Garden sign.  We are: Frances and Linwood from North Carolina – mid 60s, retired from school board admin and quality assurance at Brookstone Tires – have been to Italy twice, once on a see-Europe-in-20-days bus trip and again on a Med cruise to Greece and Turkey; Susan and her college roommate Ramona – both lawyers, Susan from Philly and Ramona from Wisconsin and a sitting judge originally from the Dominican Republic.  Paolo is originally from Sicily, but Orlando based for the last 35 years.   Alex the regular/annual driver from Brescia, Italy and the youngest of our band is around 30.   Kevin the Olive Garden HR Manager, Lucinda and Jeff are both Marketing senior managers – all three Orlando-based staff are on incentive trips with us.  Lucinda and Kevin are the only ones of the group who have never ever been to Italy before.    We will be eleven for the week.

Olive Garden started their relationship with the Reserva di Fizzano resort in the last 1990’s when a corporate bigshot’s visit to Tuscany stumbled upon reconstruction and were inspired to create a partnership.   The family who had owned the winery since the early 20th century, had purchased this small medieval village perched in the Chianti region between Sienna and Florence and decided to renovate it as a “resort” bed and breakfast.     External structures were maintained while nineteen apartments were created internally with modern conveniences, kitchens, and simply furnished with antiques and tapestry wall hangings.    The winery and olive presses are on site as well as a laundry, reception area and full restaurant.    Utterly charming both to arrive and wander at sunset.

Olive trees at sunset in Tuscany

Literally IN the Olive Garden

The resort was originally intended to be closed from the end of the grape season – mid-November each year – through late April when Olive Garden negotiated agreements to come for 3 months from February to April.  An ordinary week would involve 15-18 employees arriving for 6 days of intensive training on the foods, lifestyle, and management issues in an attempt to expose them to the real experience but also as a reward for their hard work in the restaurants.    Paolo supervises, teaches and escorts generally for 14 weeks and we are a break in that schedule both as a smaller group and more touring/less instruction.

Our marketing experts inform us the corporate philosophy is to not try to be authentic but be evocative of the Tuscan experience.   “We can’t recreate the original but that’s not really what our customers want” with multiple examples on and on.    We are blessed to have enough chatty travelers with us that we have not had to admit we don’t eat at Olive Garden nor dissemble that lack of authenticity is a major reason.     Absolutely no point in being rude to our wonderful hosts.