In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not much of an Olive Garden fan. In fact, with the exception of their fettuccine alfredo, I can’t think of a single entrée I’ve ever truly enjoyed from any of their locations that I’ve visited. It should be said here that I don’t like fettuccine alfredo, so if there’s only one place I DO like it from, they’re probably not doing it right. I don’t dislike Olive Garden per se, they’re just kind of…there.
However, there are a few saving graces. I’ve always enjoyed the toasted ravioli appetizer quite a bit, and there’s an amazing Black Tie Mousse Cake on their dessert menu. In between the appetizer and dessert, well it’s very hard to go wrong with soup and salad, so that’s usually what I get. As much as I bristle at the word “safe” when used to describe food, at Olive Garden those are my safe choices. Of course, there are always exceptions…
Sorry, no picture of my local Olive Garden, as they’re doing construction of some kind on the roof right now. But hey, if you’ve seen one Olive Garden…
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that get you into trouble when deciding on a place to eat. This time, it was the dessert. Myself, my roommate, and my roommate’s tween daughter were literally on our way to The Cheesecake Factory for dinner when Olive Garden’s Black Tie Mousse Cake, a dessert so good that it tempts even myself, came up. It sounded good to everybody, so suddenly our destination had changed. After being shown to a cramped booth with a light fixture that hung so low that I ended up keeping my hat on to shield my eyes from it, we perused our menus.
The kid ended up getting chicken fingers because, well, I think that’s her go-to dish. Just like I have to try the unagi at every new sushi place I go to, I think she has to try the chicken fingers/strips/nuggets. So be it. The roommate ordered the Chicken Parmigiana, and I decided on the unlimited soup, salad and bread sticks thing (a true Italian classic from their lunch menu that you can have for dinner if you’re willing to pay a little extra). I also added on a three item appetizer plate which they dub the Create a Sampler Italiano (if that’s spelled wrong, it’s because my eyes were rolled back in my head while I typed it), for which I chose my beloved toasted ravioli, the fried zucchini, and the fried mozzarella.
|The Create a Sampler Italiano…a dish name worthy of IHOP|
The appetizer platter hit the table in what seemed like a ridiculously short period of time, so you can imagine my surprise when pretty much everything turned out to be overcooked. The ravioli tasted as good as ever, but it was crunchy around the edges. The zucchini was basically mush being held together by breading. Both tasted fine, but the textures were off. The mozzarella was about like you’d expect though. Unfortunately, though I had ordered the appetizers for the table, nobody seemed that interested in helping me eat them, so by the time my “meal” arrived, I was already pretty full.
Italian dressing is something I can take or leave generally, but for some reason I really dig the dressing at Olive Garden. The salad this time was as good as ever, but I had already eaten a plate of meat, cheese, grease and starch, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have.
Even though I’ve had several better versions of the Zuppa Toscana, not the least of which is my mother’s, it’s still my favorite soup from Olive Garden. Pretty simple really…sausage, potatoes, kale, and creamy broth. Normally the restaurant version is a little on the thin side for me, but after an appetizer platter and a salad, I couldn’t have handled the stew-like version my mother makes, or probably even the thicker, creamier version my roommate talked about attempting after trying a spoonful of Olive Garden’s. Still, even if it’s thinner and the chunks are smaller, the taste was as good and comforting as ever.
The roommate was considerate enough to let me try her food in exchange, and once again I found myself wondering if it was being held on a steam table in the back. The noodles were basically sans-texture, turning into instant mush in the mouth much the way the zucchini had. The chicken itself tasted completely off to me as well, the breading too thick and chewy and far too brown (though whether the fault of overcooking or old oil I can’t be sure). She still says she prefers it to Gino’s, so perhaps we just differ wildly on how we feel this particular dish should be executed.
In between all of this stuff, our waitress would appear periodically like a stereotypical mother in a mafia movie to try and shove more soup, salad and bread sticks down my throat. My companions’ starch-heavy fare was weighing on them as well, and in the end we decided to split one piece of cake between the three of us.
|Black Tie Mousse Cake|
To be honest, my dessert apathy aside, this is the item that I consider to be the crowning achievement of the Olive Garden menu. Full almost to the point of misery, I was still covetous of my portion. Even if you despise Olive Garden as much as I kind of do after this visit, I’d still recommend stopping by for a piece of this to go. When a man who doesn’t care much about desserts either way recommends one, you may want to listen…that’s all I’m saying.
When all is said and done, this write-up almost didn’t happen. Writing up big corporate chains kinda depresses me (see my Red Robin review for a perfect example of this). I told my roommate that I kinda wasn’t wanting to do it, but she talked me into it. I don’t know what’s with all Olive Garden’s sudden interest in “Tuscan-themed” revisions of their menu and the looks of the restaurants themselves, but something seems amiss to me. If the Olive Garden chefs really are being sent to Italy for training, then they must be taking follow-up courses on how to cut corners and Americanize dishes when they return home. It’s sad really, because a place that can do a decent appetizer, soup and dessert should have some more impressive entrée selections. Prior to this visit, it had been about nine years since I’d set foot in an Olive Garden. It’ll be interesting to see what they’re putting out nine years from now.
Final Grade: C