Olive Garden’s pasta is cooked exactly to specification, without fail. When you’re a chain restaurant that serves millions of people, you can’t leave such things to chance, or the capricious whims of a chef. So when people complain about the food being over- or under-cooked, I usually look upon them with suspicion. Things at the OG aren’t freeform enough to allow for misjudgments in cook times. Nine times out of ten, the complaining party’s issue is simply a matter of personal preference not being met.
That said, I think most pasta connoisseurs would agree that Olive Garden’s food is cooked beyond the point of al dente (italian for “to the tooth”, meaning firm when bitten). My assumption is that this level of cooking was found to be the most palatable to the target demographic of the restaurant. A sort of ‘lowest common denominator of pasta’. Which, incidentally, was originally the subtitle for this blog.
One of my many part-time jobs in college was an assistant veterinary surgeon. Our facility was almost entirely run by volunteers, and we provided services at-cost and often free to needy families. We did good work, but the staff had more enthusiasm and love than they did training. I have more than a few stories of minor surgical mishaps, and the occasional dropped dog testicle. We’d eventually find them in some corner or another, their thin, shriveled membranes flaked with bits of dust.
Anyway, here’s some food. Eat up!
Do you remember being a young child, waking up some cold morning, and pressing your hands against the frost-laced window of your bedroom as you took in the sight of the year’s first snowfall? A landscape you knew so well transformed literally overnight into an entirely different world. That’s the feeling that I’m trying to evoke here.
Whenever I talk with a non-professional about Olive Garden, the first thing out of their mouth is almost invariably breadstick-related. It’s unfortunate that due to the focus of my blog - the never ending pasta bowl - I can’t really give them the time and respect that such a core part of the brand deserves. So I found this photo in my reel of pictures of an otherwise mediocre and unimpressive combination, and am hijacking this review for the sake of everyone’s favorite comestible: the humble breadstick. Soft, warm, and seasoned generously with buttery garlic salt, it has truly earned its popularity. With bread like this, who needs an entree?
My waitress, one of the faceless hundreds who have for three years tirelessly marched to and from Olive Garden’s kitchen in a futile attempt to fill the black hole that is my pastabelly gracefully places my meal in front of me.
“Here you go, sir. Don’t worry. The chicken’s just hiding under the sauce. Hehe.”
This is a clear breach of NEPB protocol - pasta, covered by sauce, covered by topping, every time - and I don’t particularly care for anyone else anthropomorphizing my food. That’s my job.
I make a mental note to leave a strongly-worded direct message with the official Olive Garden twitter to have her fired. It’s been a few days now and she still seems to be working, so I’m not really sure what’s going on with that. But we’ll wait and see.
Traditionally made out of little more than butter, flour, and heavy cream - and coming in at a whopping 720 calories - alfredo sauce is definitely a heavy addition to any pasta. Pairing it with rigatoni and grilled chicken definitely lightens the load and makes for a much more enjoyable eating experience. Compare a forkful of this dish with that of, say, Mario’s Malaise, and you’ll immediately see what I mean.
In this photo I really tried to capture the tensile strength of rigatoni. Note how the eyes are drawn to the central piece, which holds its shape despite the weight of another rigatoni atop it. Truly an engineering marvel. The top rigatoni, however, is sagging! Perhaps there is also a more metaphorical meaning here - that pain is relative. Not everyone responds to pressure the same way, and there are many kinds of strength.
I find the browning on the grilled chicken really visually appealing, especially when looked at with the striations of the chicken muscle. Olive Garden’s food has always looked a little plastic, a little too manufactured - see the spaghetti and five cheese marinara in this photo for an example. But the grilled chicken is real. I love it.
This is the combination that Olive Garden features prominently on their 2016-edition menu for the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, and also in much of their promotional material. I spent a lot of time taking pictures of what I was served, and I think I did the best I could with what I got. Now all that’s left to do is wait for the talent scouts to come knocking on my door. Psst - it’s vino at all of garden dot com, if you’re wondering.
Consider this a darker, grittier reboot of Grilled Chicken Alfredo. A little bit more nuanced, a little more adult. May not be suitable for all customers. Only served after 10 pm.
Truly the Italian Sausage of sauces, Five Cheese Marinara is really gross-looking but actually tastes pretty good. It’s a sort of guilty pleasure - which, now that I think of it, is a weird distinction to make when you’re already at the Olive Garden. Who am I trying to impress here?