Don't worry, you read that right. We put Sam Fox's brand new North up against Olive Garden.
We thought it would be funny. We thought maybe Sam Fox's new Italian restaurant would prove to be comparable to corporate Italian beast Olive Garden. We thought that we could prove once and for all that no matter how much money you dump into making your contrived and sometimes ridiculous restaurant concept look good, it really is about the food. And the word around town, as you know, is that the food at Fox restaurants just isn't very good.
In the spirit of the battle, we picked out two very similar dishes: the capellini pomodoro from Olive Garden and the bucatini from North. Both dishes kept it simple with noodles, basil, and tomatoes. Read on to see why this match-up was like pairing a young Mike Tyson against an 8-year-girl. It wasn't even fair.
In This Corner: Olive Garden
The Setup: The Tempe Olive Garden seems to have received a face lift since the last time I was there in 2007. With all the plastic "stone" accents gone and the comfy chairs on wheels replaced with wooden ladderback-style seating, the corporate restaurant looks even more generic. The booths have been replaced with more open tables, and the décor now looks like a cheap hotel lobby. (I'll be honest: This place is actually depressing. A cold, sad chill came over me upon walking in, and I really wanted to leave immediately.)
The Good: When I was about 12, this was my absolute favorite place to eat. (I am a product of the strip mall-ridden 1990s Ahwatukee, and I don't think there was a single independently owned restaurant in sight.) So when my giant salad with OG's signature dressing and the basket of warm breadsticks was placed on my table, I was actually kinda stoked. The salad and the bread still taste exactly the same, and I figured everything else would be just as I remembered, too.
When my bowl of capellini pomodoro -- a dish of angel hair pasta with olive oil, basil, and seasoned tomatoes -- arrived, it didn't look so bad either. The tomatoes were bright, and after a quick sprinkling of cheese, the dish looked more than edible.
The Bad: Just because something looks edible doesn't mean it is. This was what comedian Patton Oswalt would refer to as "A failure pile in a sadness bowl." The pasta was overcooked and mushy, the tomatoes tasted like they were from a can and were almost salty, the basil was undetectable, and even that layer of cheese couldn't save the mess.
The food wasn't the only thing that was bad. Our inexperienced server (it was her second week. I know this because she reminded me, like, seven times) was so nervous that it made me nervous, and the woman at the table across from me wouldn't stop talking with her mouth full of food. Food literally was falling out of her mouth as she talked. The entire experience was one that I hope to never experience again. Ever.
In The Other Corner: NoRth Fattoria Italiana a.k.a North Arcadia
The Setup:Sam Fox's latest restaurant is set in a beautiful building that feels like a converted feed-and-tack barn. The floor plan is open, with tons of bright windows and a spacious, open country-style kitchen. In typical Sam Fox fashion, no detail has been overlooked. Everything looks amazing -- from the industrial styled tables and chairs to the oversize hanging wine bottle light fixtures. Unlike the stuffy original North at Kierland, North Arcadia had a comfortable relaxed vibe and a welcoming atmosphere.
The Good: Sam Fox restaurants are never lacking in the beauty and style, but they tend to fall short when it comes to the food. That is not the case at his latest venture. The pasta in my bucatini dish was perfectly cooked, and the tomatoes were bursting with the sweetness that only fresh, in-season tomatoes can capture. The basil was light and the mild pecorino cheese gave the dish just a slight tang.
(We also cheated and ordered a pizza with housemade sausage. It may have been better than Cibo's pizza. I know! It kinda hurts to say, but North makes a pretty great pizza.)
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And the service? Outstanding.
The Bad: Where's the bread? You can't serve pasta without bread. That should be a crime. Especially when you are baking fresh bread on site. Don't be so stingy with our beloved carbs! And the plaid shirts and blue jeans that seemed to be the required uniform of the employees were a just a bit cheesy. We get it. It's suppose to have a barn-like feeling and we don't need a staff dressed in plaid to help us "get it."
The Verdict: Maybe it was completely unfair to visit Olive Garden before North. Maybe my latest Sam Fox experience was heightened because anything is better than Olive Garden. Maybe I have crossed over to the dark side of food snobbery more so than I'd like to admit. Either way, you couldn't pay me to dine at Olive Garden ever again. And I can now look past Sam Fox's annoying restaurant concepts, like The Arrogant Butcher and Culinary Dropout, and appreciate the new North for its charm and tasty food.