Chow, Baby had one of those semi-panicky, earth-shifting “everything I thought was true is a lie” moments at, of all places, a suburban Best Buy.

In need of a very specific computer thingie that wasn’t available at its neighborhood mom & pop electronics stores, Chow, Baby had gritted its teeth and grudgingly entered this exemplar of chain hell – where a kind and knowledgeable (and cute) saleswoman tapped a few keys, located the needed part in Plano, and offered to have it shipped right over. A satisfying transaction at a legendarily frustrating (“Best Buy sucks” gets 656,000 Google hits) corporate chain behemoth? The obvious implication: Maybe Olive Garden doesn’t really suck, either.

Not having a cousin visiting from Italy at the moment, Chow, Baby summoned a pal to an Olive Garden lunch to help investigate whether this faux-Italian spot delivers the good food and fun claimed in the tv commercials. But Chow, Baby had a secret evil plan: That night it would dine at Marco’s Italian Ristorante (6801 Rufe Snow Dr., Watauga), an elegant bistro that has been getting rave reviews for its sophisticated menu since it opened six months ago. Then, using the old compare-and-contrast, Chow, Baby could prove that anyone who would choose Olive Garden over an honest family-owned Italian place is a real idiot.

Why do Chow, Baby’s secret evil plans always go so horribly wrong? Oh, this one started off fine: Marco’s deliciously deviled crab cakes ($9.95) made a fabulous appetizer, whereas Olive Garden’s shrimp scampi ($8.95) slaughtered rather than stimulated the taste buds with a sauce that was supposed to be white wine, garlic, and lemon but that looked and tasted like cornstarch-thickened Italian dressing. But the stuffed mushrooms ($6.95 at Marco’s, $5.75 at Olive Garden) were bleh at both places; Marco’s came in a pretty pink but lukewarm brandy-cream sauce, and Olive Garden’s didn’t have much flavor at all. And at both, entrées were uneven: Marco’s tender veal saltimbocca ($14.95), with spinach, prosciutto, and mozzarella, was nicely prepared, but the fettuccine pesto ($8.95) … you know that tasteless chopped basil in a jar from the supermarket? This sauce could have been the water from that jar. It’s pretty sad when the dominant flavor in a pasta dish comes from the noodles.


Olive Garden’s big loser was the Chicken Castellina ($12.25): Chow, Baby had no idea that such a bland dish could come out of yummies like mushrooms, artichokes, and pancetta in a sauce of smoked cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. But the cheese-stuffed shells ($9.95), topped with Italian sausage and alfredo, were quite tasty. (Too bad they’re just a featured special and not part of the regular menu.) Bottom line: Neither restaurant is great, neither one completely sucks. Chow, Baby doesn’t get to call anybody names – except maybe the critics who gave Marco’s the rave reviews. But Chow, Baby is not about to cast stones in that area, no sir.

With its low expectations for Olive Garden surpassed and its high hopes for Marco’s dashed, Chow, Baby is now stuck in neutral – and boy, not having strong feelings about something just doesn’t feel right. Fortunately, a week later the computer thingie still hasn’t arrived and the cute saleswoman isn’t returning phone calls. So at least Chow, Baby gets to hate Best Buy again.

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