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Mamma Mia! Olive Garden Food Truck Invades Boston's Italian Neighborhood

Boston's North End is full of authentic Italian eateries. The Olive Garden is most definitely not one of them. But this weekend, an Olive Garden food truck parked there, handing out free food samples.
Craig Lemoult/WGBH
Boston's North End is full of authentic Italian eateries. The Olive Garden is most definitely not one of them. But this weekend, an Olive Garden food truck parked there, handing out free food samples.

Boston's North End neighborhood is a popular destination for authentic Italian food. But this weekend, local eateries got some unlikely competition: the Olive Garden food truck.

The green truck, emblazoned with the words "Breadstick Nation" and "Italian Kitchen," found a parking spot on the edge of the Boston neighborhood where Italian food is most sacred.

That's right: Olive Garden is jumping on the food truck craze. The Italian restaurant chain is sending trucks around the country to hand out free samples of its newest menu item: breadstick sandwiches.

Mark McKenna, who lives in the North End, surrounded by Italian restaurants that have been here for generations, sampled one of the sandwiches. His verdict? "It's awesome. It's really good," he told us. "After eating this, I would eat lunch at an Olive Garden."

But not everyone in the North End is so enthused.

Just up the road, in the web of narrow North End streets that smell like garlic and pastry, is the restaurant L'Osteria. Tanya Bruno works here.

"This restaurant was built on love and real Italian cuisine, recipes and family. And no Olive Garden, no big franchise can ever compete with that," Bruno says.

Down the street, in a back corner of Pagliuca'srestaurant, Bill Onessimo and three friends sit around a table crowded with steaming plates of spaghetti al olio, fettuccini with clam sauce, and more. They've been coming here for 40 years, they tell me — "same table, every Saturday. So that tells you something about the food," Onessimo says.

But before they arrived at their usual table today, they were willing to give the Olive Garden truck a shot. Frank Panache says he was not impressed with the meatball sandwich.

"And the bread — now, this being the North End, you know, we got good Italian bakeries here," he says. "And it was, I don't know, like plastic bread, I would say. I would say it was American rather than Italian."

These old friends say nothing compares to the food here at Pagliuca's, but they do like the prices and some of the food at the Olive Garden restaurants.

That's what the folks at this truck are hoping to hear. They'd like to bring more people in to Olive Garden's 800 restaurants around the country.

The food truck is now on to other cities across the country, and the Olive Garden has no plans for now to open a restaurant in the North End.

Copyright 2015 GBH

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.

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