Italian Chefs Won’t Weep

Bertolli Oven Bake Meals

By: Unilever

I Paid: $6.99 for a 24-ounce bag (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 3stars


Marketing: 4stars

Bertolli’s Oven Bake Meals get four out of five points for marketing because the ads are memorable and vivid, not because they’re admirable or credible. They depict small, dignified restaurants run by passionate Italian chefs who are getting absolutely crushed under the heels of the Unilever corporation’s frozen Italian dinners. The chefs cry out in frustrated anguish, practically dissolving into tears as Bertolli steals their customers and snuffs out their livelihoods.

Ads notwithstanding, a taste test of two of the meals reveals food that shouldn’t scare anyone, let alone someone who can cook. The Stuffed Shells in Scampi Sauce is a bit too fishy-tasting, the pasta almost gluey and overly robust, the cheese too mild. It’s not a total disaster—the herb flavors are pronounced and pleasant, as is the touch of white wine flavor. The Tri-Color Four Cheese Ravioli suffers from the classic “four cheese” problem, which is that you can generally suss out the Parm and mozz by taste, and the ricotta by texture, but it’s not really as much of a full-court press as you would hope. That said, the entrée has a nice crunchy bread-and-cheese topping that browns well and ravioli that are more delicate than the Stuffed Shells, and it delivers a real comfort-food feel.

Natural Brew Hand Crafted Outrageous Ginger Ale and Draft Root Beer

By: The J.M. Smucker Company

I Paid: $5.19 for four 12-ounce bottles (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 4stars


Marketing: 4stars

Natural Brew’s microbrew approach to soda is reflected not just in its fancy bottles and carefully written marketing spiel, but also in its relatively crisp and clean flavors. Most ginger ales and root beers taste like flavored syrup diluted by carbonated water; this stuff actually tastes like the result of brewing, with a more complicated and subtle result.

“A complex flavor of sweet birch, licorice root, sarsaparilla, cinnamon, clove … and wintergreen.” That’s the description on the bottle of Natural Brew Hand Crafted Draft Root Beer, as seductive a sentence about soda as has ever been written. Licorice and cinnamon are definitely there. To a large extent, you have to take the company’s word on the sweet birch; sarsaparilla can be detected around the edges, and clove is definitely the backbone of this stuff. Lingering on the palate: wintergreen. Fair enough. Bloggers have carped about the soda lacking actual root beer flavor, and that’s a valid point—the complexity of this beverage entertains even as it undermines (or redefines?) what we expect from something putting itself in the root beer category. But Natural Brew’s Draft Root Beer is refreshing and intriguing.

The Outrageous Ginger Ale describes itself as “a brew of Jamaican ginger and Chinese ginger root creating a crisp ginger flavor.” So what kind of flavor can we expect while drinking it? Possibly … ginger? Sure enough, although it lacks any of the bracing sharpness that you might expect from its name. It is not, in fact, outrageous.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.