There are certain protocols to April Fools' pranks in the modern newsroom, and if you've worked at newspapers long enough, you've probably seen most of them — the urgent messages from Heywood Jablome, the punked emails that tie up screens with dancing cats, the unbolted swivel seats. The Weekly played a pretty good one with its announcement of a free N.W.A reunion concert at Santa Monica Pier, and we probably could have gotten 10,000 people there if the disclaimers hadn't been so broad. Grist reporter Tom Philpott's exposé of Big Spelt was so close to the articles he writes the other 364 days of the year that everybody just assumed he had found another corporation to skewer — who really knows where those big boxes of spelt flakes at Whole Foods come from?
I have always aspired to be the kind of person who could pull off a decent prank, but although I don't like to admit it, I have proved remarkably inept. Sure, there was the year I managed to persuade my daughter that she had just consumed a plate of fuzzy green caterpillars in tomato sauce, but in her defense, she was 6 at the time. After a while, the spilled-catsup gags get stale, your kids no longer believe your stories about the new monkey mayor of San Marino, and your wife knows before opening it that the paper you have lovingly fetched for her from the dew-damp front lawn is going to be 18 months out of date.
This year, I was sure I had figured something out: I was going out of town, I had to put together a restaurant review in a hurry, and I managed to talk Anne Fishbein, our intrepid restaurant photographer, into meeting me for lunch 35 miles from her house — at the Arcadia Olive Garden. We had been spending too much time covering Sichuan restaurants, Korean dives and regional Mexican food, I argued, and readers had been complaining about our enthusiasm for the expensive intercultural restaurants I like so much. Harriet Ells, who produces the Good Food show on KCRW, had recently asked me to hold off on noodles for a bit, so I was able to summon the genuine outrage of a man forbidden — forbidden! — to share his love for dan dan mian.
It was simple: We were going to meet at the Olive Garden, where we would act like tourists and explore the wonders of seafood alfredo and unlimited bread sticks, to express for once the simple goodness of Venetian apricot chicken and grilled shrimp caprese, of chicken scampi and smoked mozzarella fonduta and lasagna fritta. (What is lasagna fritta? Apparently rolled lasagna sliced into thick discs, crisped in trans-fat-free boiling oil and served with a marinara dipping sauce. Words for once fail me.)
The chain has introduced an aesthetic of Tuscan goodness, I assured Anne. Olive Garden chefs now undergo rigorous training at the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, in the heart of Chianti Classico, where "they learn the key values and skills needed to remain true to the rich history of Italian cuisine.'' They bring in their own chianti now, grown around an 11th-century castle called Riserva di Fizzano — the "village'' name is the rough equivalent of calling an olive-oil town Extra-Vergine di Olio. They use pecorino Romano. From Italy. It's cheese. And they were planning to remodel a certain percentage of their restaurants to resemble Tuscan country inns — Tuscan country inns of a sort that didn't really exist until a 1980s ad campaign for digestive biscuits convinced the Italian populace that they did, but no matter.
I had no intention of eating lunch at the Olive Garden. I was planning to intercept the grumpy photographer at the door and spirit her to the Derby, a track-fueled steak house less than a minute's drive down the street. We'd have a Sidecar or two. We'd laugh at how she'd been fooled. There would be leftover meat for her bull terrier.
Except that I was caught in traffic and ended up at the restaurant 20 minutes after she got there. She had commandeered a big table upstairs, and was already into the bread sticks, long, doughy things slicked with grease and oil. She was working on a cappuccino, which was all but hidden under a swirly tower of whipped cream. She was looking forward to a bowl of "Tuscan'' soup with sausage, potato and milk, which she enjoyed — although the soup had clearly broken from being held at too high a heat — and a plate of eggplant parmigiana that consisted of crunchy eggplant Pringles bound with leathery straps of mozzarella.
I would like to say that I enjoyed the tomato-y pasta e fagioli, which was after all no worse than the clear-out-the-crisper soups I make all the time, and that the tenderness of the fried calamari was greater than the sogginess of its breading. I would also like to report that the lasagna rollata al forno was just as good as the remarkably similar lasagna cupcakes from Silver Lake caterers Heirloom L.A., which are something of a local fixation. They weren't, though — they just weren't. Nor was the moment when the waiter filled the tiny wine glass to the rim and said "That'll do ya''; nor the chef's excited tales of the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, nor Anne's delight at my abject misery.
She was not to be deterred from the house tiramisu, and she contemplated getting a platter of dolcini while I wondered how much straight Galliano would deliver me to a merciful death.
I'm the snob. I will always be the snob. Anne just scooped up my bread sticks. It was a prank taken one step too far.
OLIVE GARDEN | 2610 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach. (310) 545-0423 | 430 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia. (626) 821-0636 | 19724 Nordhoff Place, Chatsworth. (818) 772-6090; and many, many other locations | Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. | All major credit cards accepted | Full bar | Endless acres of lot parking, although the spaces will all be filled by late-model minivans | Appetizers $7.35-$11.25, pastas $12.25-$17.75, proteins $15.25- $20.95, desserts $2.75-$6.95