I grew up in a home where Italian food was on the table several nights per week. There was a big pot of red sauce on the stove most weekends, and our holiday menus featured enough sausage, eggplant, shells/ziti/lasagna, and stuffed artichokes to feed a small army (I have 26 first cousins).
When I started cooking for myself, I learned how to make a lot of the traditional Italian dishes that incorporate wine/stock/cream sauces. I experimented with piccata, marsala, saltimbocca, puttanesca, carbonara, and so many browned butter/nut/herb sauces. When done properly, these dishes are not complicated. They involve a minimal number of ingredients and are usually ready in 25 minutes or less. And almost none of these dishes are sweet. At all.
I have a huge problem ordering Italian food at restaurants along the entire price spectrum. At relatively inexpensive restaurants, the food usually tastes pre-cooked, frozen, reheated, and overly sweetened. At upscale restaurants, I have a hard time paying $25 for something that I can make at home for $10. And when I say that, I mean that I could make the same meal for four people for $10. I just seems like a waste of money.
I understand why high-end restaurants mark up pasta dishes so much. Pasta is a safe choice for unadventurous diners and restaurateurs have to make their money where they can. With handmade pastas like gnocchi, agnolotti, and ravioli, the price is often justified. But why do chefs tend to over-sweeten sauces to the point where they taste like they accidentally reached for the sugar instead of the salt?
Red sauces shouldn’t evoke the taste of ketchup. Cream sauces shouldn’t taste like the bastard offspring of alfredo and ice cream.
What’s the point of this over-seasoning? I expect over-sweetening from “Italian” foods aimed at children, such as spaghettios, and from low-end chains like Olive Garden. But why does grilled chicken florentine from an average restaurant always taste like a mixture of white sugar and trans fat?
Why do the meats in these dishes have to be “crusted” and deep-fried all the time? Is that done to justify the price? Why is the sauce so thick that it could be lapped up with a fork? What’s wrong with just making these meals the proper way?
I feel like restaurants dumb down these dishes because they believe that’s what most people expect. They may be right, but does that mean it’s what most people want? Have their customers been presented with an alternative?
These restaurants just seem to crank out substandard food out of habit. They’re doing nothing to distinguish themselves from their competition. Diners get what they expect, everyone revels in their ignorance, and the wheel of mediocrity goes round and round.
For the most part, pasta sauces are cheap and easy to make. They keep for days. Why not just make a good batch and sell plates of it at a reasonable price? Restaurateurs would still make a good margin, and they’d be able to create a blue ocean between the candy-flavored pasta chains and the overpriced bistros.