A Tour of Italy
I recently had the pleasure of dining at a new-to-me establishment by the name of Olive Garden. I was intrigued to go there because I’ve heard that when you’re there, you’re family. And I do love a good old family dinner. I also love fettucine alfredo.
Olive Garden is housed in a gargantuan building sporting authentic Tuscan villa architecture. This monstrosity rises abruptly out of a suburban wasteland of strip malls and nondescript business parks in Bloomington, Minnesota, instantly transporting diners to the Italian countryside.
After crossing an expansive parking lot, we stood at the doors to this majestic establishment. We wandered through labyrinthine passages until we made it to the table where our friends were waiting. A bright window provided us wonderful natural light (helpful for my high-quality food photography) and a view of asphalt and a for-profit college looming across the parking lot.
Our table was adorned with a glowing iPad, which in addition to showcasing photos of Olive Garden's menu items, also played a steady stream of advertisements. I believe there were also games available, which the young and wiggly toddler at the next table certainly took advantage of as her mullet-sporting grandmother looked on.
Our server, a lovely and helpful man (note: this is the only sentence in this article that is not facetious) soon appeared and took our drink and breadstick orders. If you are familiar with Olive Garden, you are probably aware that this fine establishment offers unlimited breadsticks (with an array of dipping sauces) and salad with every entree. We certainly ordered both breadsticks and salad.
We also decided to wet our whistles with adult beverages. Olive Garden has a fascinating wine and cocktail selection. One standout cocktail is the Italian Margarita, which combines Jose Cuervo tequila with amaretto. It should go without saying that I did not order that ill-conceived libation.
We opted instead for a red blend. While they did have wine selections associated with specific grapes, a blend felt like a much more fitting pairing with the meal we were about to consume - a blend of sorts itself, albeit a blend of carbohydrates, salt, and cheese in a variety of presentations.
When our wine arrived, I marveled at the custom stemware Olive Garden showcases - no doubt hand-blown by a local artisan. The wine glass was festooned with curly script that said "Salute!" and what I can only imagine is an olive branch - a preemptive peace offering for the war this food would undoubtedly wage on our digestive systems later, perhaps?
Next to arrive was the salad, served on plates that came with small shards of ice on them. This is a great example of the high level of service provided at Olive Garden - while many restaurants warm plates to keep entrees warm, I've never been provided with a salad plate chilled to such an extreme.
The salad was exactly what I expected. A mound of iceberg lettuce and various other pieces of water-forward vegetables doused in a vaguely acidic dressing. My favorite part of the salad were the giant black olives that had that "fresh from the can" taste. Our lovely server also provided each of us with freshly grated cheese to top our salads. One of our friends was so enthusiastic about the cheese that our server provided him with a foundation of cheese on his plate so his salad would be sandwiched between two layers of this imitation parmiggiano reggiano.
The next part of the meal may have been the most life-changing: the breadsticks. Served with warm alfredo dipping sauce, these things were absolute bangers. Fluffy white bread doused in butter flavoring and garlic salt, dipped in creamy, cheesy, and even more salty sauce. Did I eat four breadsticks throughout the meal? Why yes, I certainly did. And in retrospect, I wish I had eaten even more.
As we tucked into our salad and breadsticks, our server returned to take our entree orders. As it was my first time, I wanted to choose a meal that would give me the optimal Olive Garden experience. Thus, as I am wont to do, I opted for Olive Garden's tasting menu of sorts, in which a diner receives three entrees served together on one massive plate. Behold, the Tour of Italy. Lasagna, fettucine alfredo, and chicken parmesan - a most holy trinity that I can only imagine the Pope himself would readily endorse.
All three items were allegedly made with sauces that were "prepared fresh each morning," if Olive Garden's menu is to be believed. They were also covered in more fresh cheese courtesy of our server in addition to the already copious cheese included with each item. Like the salad, all three items tasted just as I expected: salty, cheesy, and tomato-ey with the occasional whisper of garlic and herbs.
Despite my significant breadstick consumption, I was able to enjoy about half of the meal before I had to tap out - an honorable attempt, I think, which made me glad to have worn stretchy clothing. (The leftovers made a perfectly acceptable breakfast the next day as well.)
The meal was satisfying in a way that only too much bread, cheese, and salt can be: immense pleasure while eating followed by a deep and all-encompassing lethargy shortly after finishing.
As we slowly plodded back across the parking lot to the car, stomachs leaden with carbs, I couldn't help but wonder, "Will I ever return to this godforsaken place? Will the draw of those buttery breadsticks draw me back into its Italian-inspired embrace? Or was eating at Olive Garden best left as a fleeting but memorable one-time thing?" Only time will tell...