When 86-year-old newspaper columnist Marilyn Hagerty wrote her now-famous review of a North Dakota Olive Garden back in March, I wouldn't say that her story changed the path of restaurant reviews everywhere -- or even anywhere. But it did give food writers, myself included, an appreciation for the fact that chain restaurants should not necessarily be off the table -- or off the menu.
Olive Garden got its start in Orlando, Florida in 1982, birthed by General Mills -- yes, the cereal company -- as was a sibling, Red Lobster. A General Mills spinoff, Darden Restaurants, has operated both chains since 1995, and the '90s were good to Olive Garden, with its signature unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks branding the chain like a marinara-soaked cash cow. A growing cash cow.
Unfortunately, the next decade wasn't as kind, and 2011 saw a decline in sales. So Olive Garden execs have been experimenting with deals, including the current "Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow" special for $12.95.
I visited the location at 1151 East 120th Avenue, Thornton to check out this new special for myself, and also to do some quality-control testing on the all-you-can-eat breadsticks: good, investigative journalism on my part.
Olive Garden's conformed "Tuscan countryside" décor is charmingly counterfeit, its house wine corrosive enough to remove years of built-up tarnish from silver plate ware, but I was pleased to be reminded that the two things I've always liked the most about the place -- the spaghetti and meat sauce, and the breadsticks -- haven't changed a bit.
I cannot recall a time when I've ever had bad service at any Olive Garden, and my server for this visit was fantastic: bubbly, upbeat, efficient without being buggy, and liberal with the cheese grater. She gave me a special pullout menu listing the options for the special: for $12.95, I got one of five entrees -- ravioli with five cheese marinara, lasagna rollatini with meat sauce, five cheese ziti al forno, fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti with four cheese meat sauce -- along with my choice of soup or salad and those golden, buttery breadsticks by the basket. And I got to choose another entrée from the list to take home.
I chose spaghetti and ravioli for there, ziti and fettuccine for later. Normally I'd order a side of dipping sauce for the breadsticks, but then I noticed the smoked mozzarella fonduta on the appetizer menu, and figured that dipping breadsticks in melted mozzarella dip would be fattening, unnecessary and sickeningly self-indulgent. The picture made it look so tempting...the Olive Garden marketing machinery suckered in my weak, hungry mind.
Chain restaurant marketing is one of the many reasons why Hagerty's review -- and chain restaurant reviews in general -- aren't popular with some food critics.
Yes, chains like Olive Garden have their own PR, plenty of dough to spend on staying visible, and seemingly no lack of paying-customer attention, even if they offer little menu or atmosphere diversity or originality. And they don't usually use organic or local ingredients except as token gestures to appear more trendy than they really are.
But like it or not, millions of people eat at chain restaurants every day. It's not meant to be a whack in the dangling pepperoni-and-olives of privately-owned local restaurants when a chain is reviewed; instead, it's an acknowledgement that a large slice of the dining public occasionally supplements their steady diets of fresh, local, organic restaurant meals with a quarter pounder, a burrito supreme...or the all-you-can-eat breadsticks at Olive Garden.
And these breadsticks were just as warm, fresh, garlic-salty and perfect as the pictures made them appear to be. So was the smoked mozzarella dip: The ceramic dish of melted cheese garnished with diced tomatoes was fresh from the oven, so the edges were all oily and crispy, and the dip was the perfect consistency for twirling around breadstick after delicious breadstick.
Choosing between soup or salad was a tough call; since I'd ordered two specials, I got both. There were no surprises with either: The lettuce was firm, with a proportional amount of tomatoes, olives, onions and pepperoncini, and the heroin-grade-addicting dressing was loaded with enough cheese to send my gall bladder into spasms. Good thing I got rid of that a few years back.
The zuppa Toscana is the best soup option, particularly when covered with a medium-thick blanket of grated cheese. It's a fragrant and succulent combination of crumbled sausage, bacon, sliced russet potatoes, cream and shredded kale. While some people might consider it an abomination to mix two breakfast meats in one dish, thank god this is America, where we're free to overload on protein. The creamy, bacon-flavored broth was another great dip for breadsticks, too.
I was on the third basket of breadsticks when my entrees arrived. The spaghetti was cooked just past al dente, the way I like it, and the meat sauce was just as gory, cheese-bombed and impeccable as every other time I've ordered it. The four cheese part was fairly new: Although Olive Garden tweaks its standard house sausage, beef and tomato sauce from time to time, the lightly tangy, meat and oregano-heavy sauce is consistently thick and hearty, and adding grated cheese to the top of of an already cheesy sauce was thrilling overkill.
I was also ever-so-grateful for the ravioli doused in five cheese marinara, a masterpiece of diced tomatoes, cheese and basil, because it proved another perfect dip for the breadsticks. The cheese ravioli themselves were plump with warm ricotta.
I couldn't think of a more effective way to squeeze more cheese into this meal than by ordering a slice of Black Tie Mousse Cake: a chilled, layered creation of chocolate cake, dark chocolate cheesecake, creamy custard mousse and a crust almost solely composed of chocolate chips. I thought about dipping a breadstick into this, but the basket was cashed out.
But I wasn't leaving the Olive Garden empty-handed -- or without additional breadsticks. My premade, chilled to-go entrees were neatly packed into microwavable plastic containers with preparation instructions on the lid. The portions were just as generous as the in-house entrees -- possibly bigger, even -- and I zapped them later on that night. I was curious to see whether or not the reheated, microwaved Alfredo sauce would be edible, since I'd had bad luck with past leftovers, the pasta absorbing the cheese sauce and turning into a hot, gummy mess.
I surmised that the thick layer of shredded mozzarella on top of each of these pasta portions must have had some sort of insulating quality, because the fettuccine Alfredo was moist, and although the sauce was a bit thicker than usual, at least there was sauce. The ziti had the same sauce I'd enjoyed with the ravioli, so I had more dipping material for the glutton-sized bag of to-go breadsticks.
Marilyn Hagerty's review of her local Olive Garden was rather saccharine. I'm not ready to go all sweet on my local Olive Garden, but I can say that I appreciate its conformity, complete lack of surprises, dedication to cheese...and endless breadsticks.
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Times two, thanks to "Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow."