Italian Oven, 10057 North Metro Parkway East (Metrocenter), Phoenix, 997-0500. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

What's the real reason the masses flock to chains of every sort? Why will we drive, bleary-eyed, 50 extra miles of interstate to pull in at a Best Western, instead of immediately getting off and sleeping at some local inn? Why do we feel more comfortable stepping into Sizzler and Denny's than into Joe's Diner across the street? Because we're scared. Anyone with a triple-digit IQ and a moment to reflect can see that hotel chains furnish something more important than a firm mattress and cable television. It's called security. Not the deadbolt-and-safety-lock sort of safety. Rather, it's the security of corporate protection, knowing that Norman Bates is not working the front desk while his mother rocks away in an adjoining room. Same thing with chain restaurants. Does anyone truly believe that franchises developed by venture capitalists will be temples to gastronomy? Of course not. No one expects headquarters-approved recipes, devised by accountants, to send us into ecstatic swoons. But we're confident that the food will at least fill us up without causing any late-night surprises. In today's anxiety-ridden society, paying the monthly utility bill, staying on the good side of the boss and worrying if A.C. Green is the missing piece to the Suns' championship puzzle is all the excitement most of us can handle. For such folks, the familiar, nonthreatening chain restaurant is more than a place to eat: It becomes a reassuring haven in an increasingly heartless world. Italian Oven, an expanding chain now in 13 states, has just come to town aiming to win over our bellies and psyches. It's a pretty place, in a sanitized, corporate way. The room is divided by shelves loaded with bottles of olive oil, vinegar, pickles and peppers. Old photos of children and pictures of anthropomorphized vegetables hang from the walls. Nostalgically, Sinatra spills out from the sound system, although the men's room sports a distinctly 90s touch: a diaper-changing station. The tables are covered with black-and-white oilcloth topped by a sheet of butcher paper, with a container of crayons invitingly at hand. Our waitress came by, grabbed a crayon and swiftly jotted her name upside down so we could read it. We spent the rest of the meal trying to duplicate her feat. The starters are pleasant enough, but pack so little ethnic punch that this place could be called Liechtenstein Oven and no one would be the wiser. The Italian wedding soup is a too-salty broth filled with pastina, spinach, little meatballs and lots of fresh carrots. The "Mixed Frye" (named after CEO James Frye) features the usual assortment of fried zucchini, chicken fingers and cheese sticks. The horseradish dipping sauce is a nice touch, however. Diners in search of appetizer nutrition can safely order the fresh-cooked-vegetable salad: greenery with warm bits of broccoli, zucchini, spinach, mushrooms and carrots. It's dreadfully underseasoned, however. Garlic bread is prepared a novel way. It's pizza dough, served on a pizza tray, sprinkled with cheese and lots of garlic, served right out of the oven. Fresh, hot bread is one of my particular weaknesses, and this tasty version easily overcame my halfhearted resolve not to fill up before the main courses arrived.

Several of these dishes made me regret the garlic-bread binge. Calzones here are humongous enough to have their own zip code, and, at $5.50, the price is certainly right. The spinach-and-bacon model came a bit thin on the ricotta, but otherwise was commendably fresh and bubbling.

Pizzas are prepared in a wood-fired brick oven, and Italian Oven has got a pretty good formula. The crust is thin and crisp, and the toppings are generous. The peppers on one specialty pizza--grilled banana peppers and chicken--surprised me with their spicy wallop. This was no white-bread, Middle American specimen. Pasta dishes form the heart of the menu, and they're the weakest link in this chain. To begin with, there's only one pasta shape--linguini. I could live with that. What's less tolerable is that every add-on we tried was so corporately bland. Too bad, because the pasta with whole baby clams came with the tenderest bivalves I've sampled in a long, long time, soft enough to gum. But the promised olive oil and garlic didn't make much of an impression. The pasta with pesto and pasta Alfredo were also pretty light in the taste department. Unlike the pizza and calzone, I can't imagine anyone looking forward to a plate of either of them. The Italian steak hoagie has the same problem. It's got the right ingredients--thin-sliced steak, peppers, red onions and mozzarella cheese--but won't remind the cognoscenti of sandwiches past in the old neighborhood. When tiramisu starts appearing on chain-restaurant dessert menus, its days as a high-end treat are clearly numbered. Curious diners who somehow missed the tiramisu years will find a serviceable, downscale version here. The chocolate-covered ice-cream ball, though, is a lot less pretentious and a lot more fun. Corporate headquarters hasn't overlooked too many nonfood details here. The restaurant is spotless and kid-friendly, prices are low, service is warmly efficient and managers stop at the table to inquire if everything's okay. With all that going for it, does it matter that Italian Oven's fare has all the genuine ethnic flair of EPCOT Center's Italian Pavilion? If it doesn't, add it to your list. Olive Garden, 4868 East Cactus, Phoenix, 494-4327. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

No doubt Italian Oven's corporate officers dream of emulating the success of Olive Garden. Owned by the General Mills megacorporation, some 400 of these casual restaurants now dot the land. In contrast to the cheery-looking Italian Oven, Olive Garden sports a more somber look: bricks, wood beams, thickets of live greenery and low lighting. Cloth napkins suggest the somewhat-more-upscale fare: Instead of pizza and hoagies, look for chicken and veal. No finger-snappin' Sinatra entertains here, just vaguely ethnic accordion and mandolin instrumentals. The food seems to be designed for people who want Italian food unencumbered by any distinctive ethnic touches. You'd need the snout of a bloodhound to pick up the scents of garlic, olive oil or oregano. The Italian sampler furnishes a taste of several nondescript appetizers. Fried ravioli, fried zucchini and fried mozzarella wedges all have something in common, but it's not Italian roots. And the uninspiring stuffed mushroom caps sit in a flavorless yellow puddle that smacks more of the lab than the dairy farm. Meals come with soup or salad. The menu claims the pasta e fagioli is a "spicy" broth. Maybe, but only if you consider salt a spice. The minestrone is better--lots of veggies help. The salad has iceberg lettuce, a sure tip-off that accountants, not chefs, run the kitchen. I've heard a lot about Olive Garden's famed garlic breadsticks. But that's more a tribute to public relations than to the art of bread making. They're warm, bland and completely resistible. Like all mass-marketed products, the main dishes are designed to be dull enough not to offend anybody. Except people who know better. Not even the execution is particularly deft. The manicotti looked and tasted old, as if it had been sitting around. The edges of the pasta tubes were tough, and the ricotta filling was dried out. The northern Italian combo platter features veal piccata, grilled chicken and fettuccine Alfredo. The grilled chicken was an unremarkable piece of boneless breast, and the veal was a tender medallion sauted with a couple of capers, mushrooms and lemon. But its gelatinous sauce wiggled around like a piece of Jell-O. And the fettuccine lacked the promised garlic-and-Parmesan zip. The linguine alla scampi was somewhat more appealing. It came with a generous portion of 12 shrimp, properly cooked, surrounded by a plateful of pasta. And I could actually detect the presence of garlic, although not enough to raise more than the eyebrow of a Transylvanian count. Tortellini is probably the best option, but not because of the insipid cheese-and-herb stuffing. Rather, the fresh-tasting cream sauce, sprinkled with mushrooms, peas and flavorful pieces of ham, deserves to be saluted. Desserts are made off-premises, following headquarters-approved recipes. Skip them. Cannoli are stuffed not with ricotta, but with a dreadfully sweet, grainy, cream-cheese filling. Zabaglione fails the calorie-to-taste test. Fashioned from egg yolks and sugar, this recipe could have been devised by the Prohibition party: I couldn't detect any of the wine or liqueur zing this treat is supposed to have. Tuned in to the culinary Zeitgeist, Olive Garden flourishes by giving people what they want: inoffensive, reasonably priced, pseudoethnic food. H.L. Mencken perfectly captured Olive Garden's appeal a half-century ago: "No one," he noted, "ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.


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