Darden Restaurants is a massive nationwide brand. And I couldn’t be prouder that this well-known company that has created beloved restaurant brands, got its start right here in Orlando. The two brands that started it all are Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Recently, Olive Garden received a whole new, revamped menu and I was invited to try it out. Has this new menu finally given me reason to go back to Olive Garden?
Some of my favorite chain restaurants, like Seasons 52 and Bahama Breeze, are Darden Restaurants. But, after my 2006 visit to Italy, I practically swore off Olive Garden for good. I gave into the peer pressure of being “too refined” for such Americanized Italian cuisine. Many memories as a child were made in Olive Garden. I remember lunch dates with my grandmother, whom I miss very, very much. There were special occasions in which my mother would pick up Olive Garden and we’d gather around our dining room table opening each take out box like a present. So I felt guilty for turning my back on a brand that many families have turned to for casual, family friendly dining.
It felt good to come back to Olive Garden after such a long hiatus. Since my self-proclaimed “I’m too good for this” nonsense, I had been to Olive Garden two times. Both times were to celebrate something with friends, and both times I enjoyed myself. Upon being invited to check out the new menu I suddenly realized how silly I had been, and looked forward to trying out the new offerings.
I really dig this trend that has seen some stability over the years. Taking from the tradition of Spanish tapas, small plates enable you to either enjoy a small bite if you aren’t too hungry, try something new, or share with your friends. They are great for after-work social gatherings.
Polenta Shrimp alla Greca – Sautéed shrimp served on polenta and topped with a blend of olives, capers and tomato sauce. This was actually one of my favorite dishes on the new menu. First, I am sucker for polenta; I love the taste, the texture, the creaminess. The shrimp were really sweet and the robust tomato sauce and tart olives made this dish very flavorful.
Spicy Calabrian Wings – Chicken wings tossed with garlic and chili peppers from the Italian region of Calabria, served with gorgonzola dipping sauce. Yes, Olive Garden has wings. I could see these being rather enjoyable with an ice cold beer. I actually enjoyed the heat, and even added the extra spicy chili paste.
Risotto Bites – Bite-sized blend of Italian cheeses and rice, lightly fried and served in marinara sauce. These little bites are creamy and indulgent. The exterior is golden brown and crispy, the interior is creamy, cheesy goodness with pearly risotto pasta. I suggest asking for a little extra sauce on the side.
New Salad Toppers – a nice addition to the classic Olive Garden salad.
Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad Topper – Fresh mozzarella bites, roasted tomato, bell pepper, basil, kale and an extra-virgin olive oil drizzle. I thought the antipasti topper would be the obvious winner for me, but I was wrong. I had to stop myself from eating all of this bright, fresh salad. I loved the kale and roasted tomatoes. This topper takes the classic Olive Garden salad and makes it a more refined “grown up” selection.
Antipasti Italian Meats & Cheese Salad Topper – Hard salami, genoa salami, pepperoni and mozzarella. With crisp veggies and tangy Olive Garden dressing, the antipasti topper seems like a no-brainer. Upon reading the description I thought “well why haven’t they done this sooner?” The meats are a perfect addition to the salad, and something my husband really enjoyed.
A Selection from the Lunch Menu
Smashed Chicken Meatball Sandwich – Smashed chicken meatballs with roasted bell peppers and mozzarella on a focaccia bun. Served with garlic parmesan fries. While I loved the roasted bell peppers and mozzarella, the texture of the smashed chicken meatball was slightly too mushy for me. I did enjoy the toppings and the flavors have intrigued me to try some of the other lunch selections, especially the sandwiches.
Cucina Mia – Create Your Own Pasta
Large Paccheri with Creamy Sun-Dried Tomato and Chicken Meatballs: This was another surprise hit for me. The large paccheri pasta is something I had never had before. This large, flat, air filled pasta was tender and buttery. The creamy sun-dried tomato sauce was indulgent and tangy. The chicken meatballs had a much firmer texture than the version on the smashed meatball sandwich. These three choices together made the dish creamy, indulgent, and savory. Once again I had to stop myself from eating all of it.
Vegetable Penne Primavera: The large, crisp, fresh veggies are definitely the star of the show in this dish. I could see myself ordering this with the gluten free pasta selection they offer and not feeling too guilty about the meal afterwards.
Pappardelle Pescatore (Olive Garden Specialty) – Sautéed shrimp, bay scallops and clams tossed with pappardelle pasta, fresh asparagus and tomatoes in a creamy red pepper seafood sauce. This dish is definitely for the seafood lovers. The seafood was very sweet, plump, and tender. The pappardelle pasta is like long ribbons of pasta. The creamy red pepper sauce has a kick, but it it does not overpower the dish.
Chicken Abruzzi (Lighter Italian Fare [under 575 calories]) – Grilled chicken breast in a savory broth simmered with cannellini beans, kale and garden vegetables. I am very pleased with the offerings on the Lighter Fare section of the menu. I believe this is where I felt most comfortable, I wish the tasting event provided just one more selection from this portion of the menu. I really enjoyed this dished, though I wish I had not squeezed the lemon into the broth, it made it a little too tart.
Chicken Primavera with Giant Fusili (Spring Seasonal Menu) – Sautéed chicken breasts with snap peas, asparagus and Italian vegetables tossed in a fresh tomato pomodoro sauce over giant fusilli pasta. Once again the vegetables were absolutely delightful. The oversized fusili pasta added a great texture. We ended up boxing up this dish and taking it home. It was just as good the next day.
The Grand Finale – Dessert
Wild Berry Layer Cake – Layers of moist vanilla cake and Italian cream topped with seasonal berries and white chocolate shavings. This dessert was AWESOME!!!! I loved every last bite. The cream was heavenly and the cake was incredibly moist. The only problem is A) this is a seasonal dessert and B) it is not available at all locations.
All in all, I will say there are some items that would draw me back to Olive Garden should the occasion call for it. I may even make a special trip for the Shrimp Polenta alla Greca, Paccheri with Chicken Meatballs, or something from the Lighter Fare menu. The small bites and seasonal menus are great additions as well. I have to applaud Olive Garden for bringing forth some fresh ideas and great new selections.