Olive Garden has a culinary institute in Italy, where chefs learn how to make classic Italian dishes. Every year, about a hundred chefs and managers from Olive Garden restaurants around the country make a week-long trip to the chain's Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where they are exposed to Italian recipes, cooking techniques and Italian culture. The trip serves as inspiration for the Olive Garden menu, but only a few of the 150 ideas that come out of each excursion actually make it onto the menu. They must be adapted for the American palate and complete a year-long testing process in select restaurants.
"We've had some things that I really thought would do very well in tests that didn't," said Pickens, naming stuffed pork chops -- a dish commonly found in Italy -- as one that was scrapped from the menu. He said that Americans prefer beef and chicken as their main meat selections.
Olive Garden chef and director of the Culinary Institute of Tuscany Paolo Lafata let "Good Morning America" into the test kitchen to share some of its secrets of how to "Americanize" Italian fare.
"In Italy, we like to have four to five courses in one meal. ... In America, unfortunately because of our culture, everything is done fast," Lafata said.
To accommodate Americans' on-the-go lifestyle, Olive Garden cuts down the traditional Italian mealtime, incorporating separate courses for pasta, meat and vegetables all into one dish.
Americans also don't generally like the firmer "al dente" texture of Italian pasta, so Olive Garden cooks the pasta exactly one minute longer.
And they have to accommodate the American appetite for a lot more cheese than Italians commonly use in their dishes. Olive Garden imports six types of cheeses from Italy.
Olive Garden also adds more cheese to its pasta dishes than Italians use in their recipes. Six types of cheeses are imported from Italy, and customers can't get enough.
The two most popular dishes ordered at the Olive Garden also are among the cheesiest: lasagna and pasta with Alfredo sauce.
To keep up with America's changing tastes and nutrition guidelines, Olive Garden has started offering lighter fare, such as a seafood brodetto dish with scallops, shrimp and tilapia, mushrooms and white wine sauce. Next year, Olive Garden, along with all other national restaurant chains, will have to post calorie counts on the menu.
For now, Olive Garden has found a recipe for success. Out of all the chain restaurants owned by Darden Restaurants, Olive Garden is the top earner. Despite these tough economic times, it plans to add up to 55 more locations in the United States, and venture into the Middle East and Latin America.