Of course, at this point in the breadstick's history it’s important to note that the food Italians made upon arriving in American ceased to be truly Italian. The diet of the poor blossomed into one built on the excesses of the U.S., where immigrants could find gargantuan amounts of ingredients that were unthinkable in the old country. Enter red sauce, meatballs, hearty pastas, pizza, breadsticks, and other nonna-approved dishes that created the foundation of Italian-American cuisine. It’s within this framework that the Olive Garden breadstick became the perfect American foodstuff: adopted from immigrants but streamlined to satisfy the tastes of the melting pot and the pocketbooks of American big business.
Olive Garden’s own history, when unspooled alongside American dining trends, bears this out. In the early 1980s, Italian-American food, now wholly accepted by the American public, turned away from classic red sauce joints and towards “Tuscan-style” restaurants that emphasized, as John Mariani wrote for Saveur, a more authentically Italian fare: “The basic argument was that what real Italians ate -- a diet abundant in vegetables, seafood, grains, and olive oil -- was far more healthful than the meaty, rich, fried, cheese-laden, red sauce-drowned food of Italian-Americans. Quick sauteed greens and farro were in; chicken parmesan and meatballs were out.” Olive Garden adopted this Tuscan branding, even if it didn't quite adopt the food, and began to dot the interstates and metropolitan regions of American cities as the 1980s and 1990s unfolded.
Just like most of its menu, the breadsticks are not "authentically" Italian. A spokesperson for Olive Garden likes to cite the use of bread as a popular and common appetizer in Italy as justification for the chain's practices. That’s not quite true, according to Della Croce: “They are sometimes served with prosciutto, or prosciutto may be wrapped around them, but are also eaten as a snack or tucked into the breadbasket at the table -- they are not specifically appetizers.”
But does authenticity really matter when you're staring down a basket of steaming hot breadsticks? Kenneth Scott, the chef-de-cuisine at newly opened Cleveland delicatessen Larder, best sums up the appetizer's legacy. A fanatic since his mom first took him to the Olive Garden a mall in Virginia Beach, Virginia, he gets at the heart of the breadsticks’ importance. “They’re just fucking delicious,” he explains. “Those things are like glorified hot dog buns smothered in garlic and parmesan cheese. Who doesn’t love garlic and butter on bread?” Scott’s got a point: There’s nothing more American than that.