So the people at Starboard Value want to somehow inject real food into the corporate-decided menu of the Olive Garden. Great! If there’s two things I love, it’s telling people they’re wrong and impossible-to-solve challenges so, obviously, this is right up my alley. So let’s look at what we’ve got here, shall we?
I’m going with the dinner menu, basically because everything on the lunch menu is already on the dinner menu.
Create a Sampler Italiano
The menu says: “Choose from: calamari, stuffed mushrooms, fried zucchini, chicken fingers, fried mozzarella or toasted beef and pork ravioli”
The correct answer: Boy oh boy this is an auspicious place to start. First of all: get rid of the cheese sticks and the chicken fingers. You are not a sports bar, and there are two reasons for chicken fingers: either you are 8, or you have had so many alcoholic beverages that you are, mentally, 8. Either way, they have no place on the menu. Cheese sticks are closer to acceptable, but just because you have a deep fryer doesn’t mean this is a good use for them. Second of all, this thing has the dumbest name I’ve ever seen. It’s just a sampler. “Create” is an awfully elevated verb for what you’re doing with it, but it can stay because it’s nowhere near the goddamn linguistic crime that “Italiano” appended to the end of this full-sentence dish title is. Just call it a fucking appetizer sampler. We’re already in the door at Olive Garden, you don’t need to do things like end your dishes’ names with “Italiano” to remind us that we’re family. Cripes.
The menu says: “Tender classic calamari, lightly breaded and fried. Served with parmesan-peppercorn and marinara sauces.”
The correct answer: It’s been a long time since I had the parmesan-peppercorn sauce (which I think is also sometimes a salad dressing? Or I’m thinking of somewhere else?), but I would bet that I remember it accurately as ranch dressing with the vaguest sense that something like parmesan cheese was once somewhere near it. Don’t dip squid in that. Their marinara sauce is its own problem, and not one that we’re going to address here, but don’t dip squid in that either. Without the sauces, this appetizer has nothing except the squid themselves. Since these are the non-spicy ones, this gets thrown out. NEXT.
The menu says: “Spicy calamari, lightly breaded and fried with cherry pepper slices and red pepper flakes. Served with parmesan-peppercorn and marinara sauces.”
The correct answer: Throw out the sauces again and you have a perfectly serviceable calamari appetizer. So do that, and devote all of your calamari resources to this one, and not that other stupid one. If people don’t like spicy food, they can order something else. If they like spicy food and can’t eat anything but calamari, they are weird people who should probably never have left their bubble in the first place.
The menu says: “A traditional topping of roma tomatoes, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil. Served with toasted ciabatta bread.”
The correct answer: not a whole to do here. It’s bad tomatoes and bad bread, but it’s still better than, say, the non-spicy calamari, and it isn’t a goddamn chicken finger. Plus, people probably expect to see it here on the menu. Sigh.
Classic Shrimp Scampi Fritta
The menu says: “Lightly breaded and fried shrimp, tossed with a garlic and white wine butter sauce”
The correct answer: this is popcorn shrimp with butter and garlic salt. When you shared purveyors with Red Lobster, this may have been a good idea, but as it is, it’s an abomination, and needs badly to be purged. PURGE IT.
Spicy Shrimp Scampi Fritta
The menu says: “Lightly breaded and fried shrimp, tossed with a spicy cherry pepper sauce”
The correct answer: While it was true that the spicy calamari was better than the bland calamari, that does not hold here. This is, if possible, even dumber, because it shows that they’re treating their shrimp like sports bars treat their chicken wings. That’s a great approach for chicken wings. Not for Italian shrimp. GOTTA GO.
The menu says: “Parmesan-breaded lasagna pieces, fried and served over alfredo sauce, topped with parmesan cheese and marinara sauce”
The correct answer: Look, I’m not stupid. I didn’t tell you to get rid of your deep fryer, and it isn’t entirely because of the calamari. These things are stupid, these things are offensive, these things are terrible, and these things are de-goddamn-licious. Don’t change a single awful thing about them.
Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta
The menu says: Oven-baked smoked mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and romano cheese. Served with Tuscan bread.
The correct answer: I don’t really want Welsh rarebit when I go to the Olive Garden, but I can appreciate that I’m not everyone. I especially don’t want smoked mozzarella in my cheese sauce. So make it fontina1 or something?
Dipping Sauces for Breadsticks
The menu says: “Freshly prepared marinara, alfredo or five cheese marinara sauces served warm. Includes four breadsticks”
The correct answer: This is just insulting to the breadsticks. And it comes in a huge bowl. Get this off the menu before everyone knows what a moron you are. Oh, and I’ll have more to say about this, but fuck your five-cheese marinara.
The menu says: “Parmesan, romano and mozzarella cheese, clams and herb breadcrumbs baked in mushroom caps.”
The correct answer: …clams?
The menu says: “Enjoy a freshly-baked Olive Garden Favorite. Add an extra dozen or half dozen breadsticks to your online order”
The correct answer: This doesn’t need to be on the menu. Carry-out customers that want extra breadsticks will ask, and you can charge them. This is stupid. Although, you know, can I get a dozen to go?
Tastes of Italy Small Plates2
The menu says: “A twist on an Italian favorite – Seasoned with herbs and a hint of red pepper, sprinkled with Italian cheeses and served in a zesty marinara”
The correct answer: This is several twists on what could be considered an Italian favorite if you squint (that is: meatballs in isolation). My primary concern is that heretofore on the menu they’re rapturously describing the cheese they use in their dishes like they’re presenting them as showpieces, and here, all of a sudden, they’re being super coy about them being “Italian” cheeses (this latter style will be the hallmark of most of the rest of menu)? Also, given that their “spicy” dishes are super-lame, how much red pepper can possibly be in a hint? Grind some parmesan into that chicken, get the red pepper up to at least “firm innuendo” and we’ll be in business.
Crispy Risotto Bites
The menu says: “A bite-sized blend of Italian cheeses and rice, lightly fired and served in marinara sauce”
The correct answer: The problem here is sort of conceptual. See, arancini3 are fine. They’re deep-fried balls of risotto, which I suppose you could describe as a “blend of itallian cheese and rice,” but which would be like describing a dog as “a blend of tail and teeth” – you’ve kind of got the idea, but you’ve missed the essence. Since there’s no way an actual risotto is coming out of that kitchen, best to scrap these altogether. SCRAP IT.
Tortellini al Forno
The menu says: “Cheese and prosciutto-filled tortellini in a parmesan cream sauce, topped with crumbled bacon”
The correct answer: Uh…I don’t know what a tortellini stuffed with ham and topped with bacon and smothered in cheese sauce is meant to be4, but I want no part of it. Ew. Barf. BARF IT.
Tuscan White Bean Hummus
The menu says: “Blended with cannellini beans, olive oil and garlic, Topped with garlic cloves and tomatoes, served with toasted ciabatta bread.”
The correct answer: This is fine. Although I will say this menu goes to some pretty lengthy extremes to avoid calling something “dip”. This is bean dip. It’s good, but it’s bean dip. There’s nothing Italian about hummus.
Crispy Parmesan Asparagus
The menu says: “Try our lightly fried recipe. Topped with grated parmesan and served with a citrus aioli dipping sauce”
The correct answer: The slideshow took special exception to this dish (and the next one), with the justification that asparagus was “too irregular” an ingredient (two shitty calamari appetizers is apparently not the same kind of problem). That seems insane. Make all the cuts I’ve recommended and you’ll be more than ready for these asparagus and this lemon mayonnaise. I understand that corporate restaurants are corporate first and restaurants second, but this is literally one of the easiest concessions to make. Oh, and keep your fryers hotter, because these things go greaseball in a real hurry.
Roasted Parmesan Asparagus
The menu says: “Oven-roasted with a balsamic drizzle and topped with grated parmesan. Served with a citrus aioli dipping sauce.”
The correct answer: It’s true that you probably don’t need two basically-the-same asparagus dishes, and my preference would be to the one that’s fried, but I’m so offended at the notion that asparagus is somehow the problem that I’m sticking to principle on this one.
Parmesan Olive Fritta
The menu says: “A bite-sized blend of olives and Italian cheeses, rolled together and lightly fired. Served with a citrus aioli dipping sauce”
The correct answer: I genuinely had no idea if this is a fried stuffed olive, or, like, a cheese tapenade5 arancini. The picture makes it looks like it’s the latter. That’s awful. Also awful: this menu’s continued insistence on calling things “fritta,” which is not a stand-alone italian noun. It just isn’t. Stop it. Deep-six this nonsense. DEEP-SIX IT.
Polenta Shrimp alla Greca
The menu says: “Inspired by Italy’s southern coast. Sauteed shrimp served on creamy polenta and topped with a fresh blend of olives, capers and tomato sauce.”
The correct answer: Ooooookay. First off: it’s not inspired by Italy’s “Southern coast.” Southern Italians eat pasta. Northern Italians eat polenta. If you’d paid attention to your own fucking menu you’d know that you knew that at one point, because the name of the goddamned dish is POLENTA SHRIMP ALLA GRECA. I’m going to try to keep it together to point out that “alla greca” means “like they make it in Greece,” and then, for reasons unfathomably to me, I’m going to assume you’re at least clever enough to note that off the Southern coast of Italy is NOT GREECE. It’s a shame, because this dish is, itself, by no means shameful. Just…Polenta. Northern Italy. This is not hard. Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.
Pizzas and Flatbreads
Chicken Alfredo Pizza
The menu says: “Pizza topped with grilled chicken, Italian cheeses, and our homemade alfredo sauce.”
The correct answer: Generally speaking, I’m against anything with “grilled chicken” on it at Olive Garden6, and also against their “pizza” – I have no idea what kind of ovens those things have on them, but it’s just not going to work for anything but reheating, and, frankly, there are better ways to acquire and consume reheated pizza. NIX IT.
Create Your Own Pizza
The menu says: “Choose up to four toppings: Pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, black olives or roma tomatoes”
The correct answer: this is an even worse idea than the alfredo pizza, so I’ll take this opportunity to point out that the item descriptions are copied directly from the menu, which includes their indifferent relationship to hyphens, and their extremely idiosyncratic attitude toward capitalization. It’s really, really weird. And stop making pizzas, you weirdos. You’re not that kind of Italian place. NIX IT AGAIN.
Grilled Chicken Flatbread
The menu says: “Chicken, mozzarella, roasted red peppers and basil with alfredo and garlic spread.”
The correct answer: This is the same as the chicken alfredo pizza, and while I’m more ok with flatbreads7, I’m still not ok with grilled chicken. I think, between the dryness of the chicken, the clumpy cheese and the dryness of the crust, it would be a great way to move water, if you decided to start charging for water. Yikes. Until that happens, there’s no reason for this to exist. UN-EXIST IT.
The menu: “Mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil on flatbread crust with garlic spread”
The correct answer: This is fine. The “garlic spread” is giving me cause for serious concern, but I suppose it’s probably not poison8. You should scrap this whole section, move this flatbread up to the appetizer section or whatever, and everyone will be super happy.
Soups & Salads
This is the last of the “Appetizer” categories!
Chicken & Gnocchi
The menu: “A creamy soup made with roasted chicken, traditional Italian dumplings and spinach.”
The correct answer: On some roads in the country, generally winding two-lane roads with property lines that end right at the road itself, where there’s no place to put a cop to radar people into following the speed limit, they put up signs that say “speed limit enforced by radar.” As a result, when you see one of those signs, you are pretty much guaranteed that the speed limit will, in fact, not be enforced by radar. I’m beginning to sense that this is the sense in which the Olive Garden menu is using the word “traditional.” It’s not traditional dumplings – they’re glue-balls that soak up the broth. This is the one soup on the menu that I could see throwing out for something else, so I suppose if there’s a better soup to replace it with, that’s cool. But honestly, it’s fine, it’s a heavy, ridiculous soup, and while there’s nothing “traditional” about those dumplings, they’re certainly not getting in the way.
Pasta e fagioli
The menu says: “White and red beans, ground beef, tomatoes and pasta in a savory broth”
The correct answer: Other than the fact that it’s actually zuppa fagioli (pasta e fagioli is, in fact, a pasta dish), and other than the fact that not calling it “Italian bean soup” means that people all over your restaurant order “fag-ee-oh-lee”, I have absolutely no real problem with this soup. It’s pretty good.
The menu says: “Fresh vegetables, beans and pasta in a light tomato broth – a vegetarian classic”
The correct answer: The menu does a pretty good job of obfuscating that this soup is basically the pasta e fagioli without the manzo, but that’s what it is, and it’s still fine. It’s not like anything is improved with more ground beef anyway.
The menu says: “Spicy sausage, fresh kale and russet potatoes in a creamy broth”
The correct answer: This is it. This is the one non-breadstick dish that comes from Olive Garden that I find myself craving. I don’t know why they don’t make better use of their sausage (which is “spicy” provided you use the word “spicy” to mean “peppery”), but this soup makes a pretty good case for them closing up shop and entering the sausage (and breadstick) business.
Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
The menu says: “Grilled chicken over romaine in a creamy Caesar dressing topped with romano cheese and croutons.”
The correct answer: I have absolutely nothing to say about chicken Caesar salad. Like, literally nothing one way or the other. That would be like yelling at clouds.
Our Famous House Salad
The menu says: “Tossed with our signature Italian dressing”
The correct answer: I mentioned in the first part what a delight the salad can be when you’ve eaten your weight in breadsticks dipped in zuppa toscana, and it really is. Salty olives, spicy peppers, crunchy onions. Shame the dressing is such a nightmare, but the light dressing is at least not as oppressive.
That wraps it up for the “first courses” part of the menu. Next time: a couple of categories of mains! There are so many things on this menu, it is kind of a joke! Wee!
1 which is, for the record, what a fonduta is usually made with, and is a much better melting cheese and also won’t clump up so badly and stick, disgustingly, in globules to the goddamn plate-thing that you didn’t even get warm enough jesus christ no wonder you had to sell your restaurant you FUCKING BARBARIANS. ahem.
2 you know, this whole category is stupid. The Olive Garden isn’t a tapas place, it’s never going to be a tapas place, and nobody wants tapas from The Olive Garden in theory. In practice, however, the times I have strayed from soups into this part of the menu have been the times when I haven’t been filled with the bitter taste of regret by a dish I ordered at an Olive Garden, so maybe they should use this section instead of their appetizers menu?
3 “crispy risotto bites” in Olive Garden parlance
4 a tiny hot pocket, maybe?
5 not only is that not a thing, but that’s not even a good idea
6 the chicken, a boneless skinless chicken breast that has been indolently prepared and then preserved in its state for far too long, is going to be dry and underseasoned every single time, and there’s just no reason to put a noble chicken breast through that kind of hell.
7 this has a lot to do with dough treatment and oven heat and all sorts of stuff that gets boring to non-obsessives in a hurry.
8 in fact, there’s some indication that it’s what they put on their breadsticks, in which case you’re not using it enough.