Review: Olive Garden's new menu

The Olive Garden’s re-boot features more elaborate flavors than before.

The Olive Garden’s re-boot features more elaborate flavors than before.

Josh Garrick

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If your idea of your local Olive Garden is “unlimited soup and salad,” – have I got news for you! The flagship chain of Darden Restaurants recently unveiled the most significant menu ‘evolution’ in the restaurant’s history, including more than 20 new menu items that broaden the choices (and value) for guests. Prepared with new cooking techniques, many developed from trips made by Olive Garden chefs to Italy, the new choices present bold new flavors and a range of choices that invite guests to return again and again.

Most importantly, the new menu acknowledges the evolution of our own eating habits by offering a whole section of Lighter Italian Fare, each of which comes in at less than 575 calories. In addition – for those with diet restrictions – the restaurant now offers whole-wheat and gluten-free substitutions for any of their pastas.

Because there are so now so many options to personally customize a meal (on both the lunch and dinner menus), I was invited to taste several of the new offerings, and I am very happy to report that my tasting experience truly exceeded my expectations from appetizers right through to desserts.

The first change comes directly from Italy as the appetizer section now reflects the new, regionally-inspired “Small Plate” experience that is oh-so-European and allows guests to explore a variety of different, bolder flavors. You could easily make a meal of a couple of these beauties, and it’s important to note that the highest cost for these offerings is $5. I loved the Parmesan Asparagus – basically a vegetable tempura – with a fantastic Gorgonzola dipping sauce. Loving anything with olives, the Parmesan Olive Fritta is a lightly fried mix of cheese and crushed olives (and you can have it with the same gorgonzola dip). I applaud their decision to make their Tuscan White Bean Hummus from the all-protein cannellini beans – a nice twist that also adds a little extra flavor to something we all love. The clear winner for me is the Polenta Shrimp alla Greca. This dish consists entirely of ingredients I love – beautifully sautéed shrimp served on polenta with all this wonderfulness topped with olives and capers in a tomato sauce. Fan – tastic.

Olive Garden’s famous all-you-can-eat salad is still there, but there are new options – even for the salad. For an additional $2.99 (so worth it), you can add a Salad Topper of either Italian meats and cheeses or a tomato caprese that is filled with massive chunks of mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, and very healthy kale. I tasted both and loved both. Order it and I think you’ll agree it may be the best $2.99 you ever spent.

We can all take pride in the fact that Darden Restaurants is a Fortune 500 Company, employing more than 200,000 people, and headquartered here in Central Florida. Their corporate giving program annually supports our thriving arts community – most notably the Shakespeare Festival, the Orlando Philharmonic, and now, the new Dr. Philips Performing Arts Center. Recognized for a corporate culture that rewards and cares for its employees, Darden was recently named to the FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the fourth year in a row.

The dinner menu has a Cucina Mia section that offers guests the opportunity to create their own entrée from a variety of six pastas and five made-from-fresh ingredients sauces. Your choice comes to you for $9.99. I had a ball mixing the Cavatappi pasta with the Alfredo sauce; the (very) large Paccheri pasta with the primavera sauce; and the Tri-colored Penne with the (I love spicy) Diavolo sauce. I’m thrilled to say that this family restaurant is spicing for real taste. These are some serious chef-inspired, great-tasting sauces.

Saving the best for last, the Lighter Italian Fare – those less than-575-calories menu items do not skimp on taste. I’m not exaggerating when I say the Garlic Rosemary Chicken ranks with the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. Prepared on a flat-top grill for a more tender and juicy taste – and then seasoned with caramelized garlic cloves – this dish would be worth twice the calories, but how wonderful to know that it fits a diet even my doctor would approve of. The same goes for the Chicken Abruzzi, beautifully served in a ceramic ‘gusto’ bowl with the chicken simmering with beans, kale and seasonal vegetables in a wonderful broth. And there is even a 6-ounce Filet Mignon – worthy of a fine steakhouse (but this one goes for $18.99) on the Light Fare menu.

The new menu also considers Olive Garden’s faithful lunch customers. Providing their busy guests with a variety of choices, they have enhanced the famous Tuscan Trio combination by offering the ever-popular soup, salad and breadsticks lunch with an additional pasta side, the new Small Plates (mentioned above) or those wonderful – and affordable – new salad toppings.

Not to worry – the unlimited fresh salad and garlic breadsticks (baked fresh every 15 minutes) are still an integral part of the Olive Garden menu, but I sincerely congratulate Olive Garden for acknowledging what we can all use as a healthier lifestyle. They’re offering more variety and great value, and they’re doing it with fresher ingredients in menu items that are good for us and for our wallets.