On Tuesday evening I was treated to quite the unusual surprise. Earlier in the day I received an email from Samantha, inviting me to an exclusive taste testing for Olive Garden‘s new menu items. Of course I had delayed birthday dinner plans for the same evening in question, but all was right with the world when I was told guests were welcome. So after work I went home and cleaned up a bit before my friend took me to my “belated birthday dinner” where we both ate for free!
I’ll be honest, my reaction to the invite was along the lines of “Wow! Olive Garden has new menu items? When’s the last time they updated?” Talking with various coworkers and friends we all agreed, most of us like OG, in fact none of us would turn down a meal at OG. Still, it’s the restaurant you went to with your family when you were growing up, it isn’t the restaurant you think about going to now. After my experience on Tuesday, I believe it SHOULD and WILL be the restaurant you think about going to now, and next week, and future dates too!
Our event took place from 700-900 PM at a location just outside of Cleveland, OH. Several bloggers and other media representatives attended and apparently the same event took place the night before as well. The first change we all noticed was the updated logo. I found this image online showing the side by side comparison.
The old logo was very “cartoony” for lack of a better word. It was fun and comforting, it was the look of the 90′s which is when it was revealed. When I see this logo I think of white pasta covered in heavy white or red sauce at a reasonable price. Right? Well, with the movement toward more “natural” and “healthy” choices, I don’t think the thick lettering and bursting wine grapes help. The new logo on the other hand, is clean and simple, like the ingredients people are now seeking in their menu items. I think of olive oil and veggies when I see the new logo. I feel healthier looking at it. Another change people may not notice? The wording. Olive Garden went from an “Italian Restaurant” AKA where food is served, to an “Italian Kitchen” where food is prepared. Doesn’t that just sound fresher.
According to the press release:
“Our new menu is designed to appeal to the evolving palettes and preferences of our casual dining guests, while providing more options to customize your meal experience at both lunch and dinner.”
Sounds like a great idea, right? So let me share what I was able to sample and what I thought about it all. I do apologize for poor images, it was my cell phone and of course indoor evening eating lighting isn’t the best. Guess I’m a “bad blogger”. Head over to Twitter or Instagram with the tag #OGTastes to find pictures WAY better than mine.
Appetizers or “small plates”:
These items are designed to go before a meal, or to be shared with a group. Another suggestion (and one I liked) is for those headed to OG for a lunch can order the small plate to have something to go along with their soup and salad. Since we all know OG is known for their soup and salad!
Starting at the top. The Artichoke Fritta sounded appealing with the 5 cheese marinara sauce, but the actual fried artichoke was terrible. Everyone at the table agreed it was too “juicy” and the artichoke flavor was much too strong. I actually like artichoke, which is why I was surprised at how bad this dish was. Certainly not something you could easily eat with another dish. The Crispy Ricotta Bites were amazing. One of the best dishes all night. Great texture, very flavorful, but not over powering. I thought they were a tad on the “cheesy” tasting side, and I liked that a lot! I would 100% grab these with a soup and salad meal. The Smashed Chicken Meatball Sandwich was another winner. Half our table loved it the other half hated it, so it seems this is a rather polarizing dish. I love how it comes served in 4 pieces, making it easy to share. I also love how they serve it with a pesto spread which is NUT FREE. We all tried it with the marinara, but you can also get it was the spicy diavlo sauce. Lastly the Polenta Shrimp alla Greca. I did not try this as I hate seafood, but everyone at my table said it was truly yummy. I also learned you could order it with chicken or another meat on the menu, or simply get it plain.
Lighter Italian Fare:
Menu items under 575-calories. This was appealing on paper, but I actually looked up the Weight Watcher’s points for one of the dishes and it was 13. There’s a few other things I’d spend 13 points on, especially for “lunch”, then again the portion sizes are HUGE and you could easily save or split a dish.
The two items we tried for this section were the Garlic Rosemary Chicken and the Chicken Abruzzi. I LOVED both, the Abruzzi is the shocking 13 points though. When I saw the Garlic Rosemary Chicken I tweeted out a pic with the caption “Be still my heart. This @OriginalOliveGarden Garlic Rosemary Chicken is under 575 cals!” This little declaration of love actually won me a gift card at the event. The garlic chicken was very moist and tender, easy to cut with just my fork. The potatoes were very creamy and I felt they were quite indulgent for being on the “lighter fare” menu. Certainly a dish for lunch or dinner, preferably for me a light dinner. Perfect for splurging on more salad or even a drink or dessert. The abruzzi was great and very much full of various flavors, but it was totally different and very much improved with the grilled lemon squeezed on top. This dish IMHO would really only work for lunch. I do not think it is nearly filling enough for a standard dinner order. As luck would have it, I ended up with about 1/2 the dish as a leftover and I ate it as lunch today. I can vouche it stays good for several days as a leftover, reheats well, and was just enough for me to enjoy at lunch without feeling bloated the rest of the afternoon.
Main dishes for lunch or dinner. New “culinary-forward” foods to the chicken and seafood sections of the menu, enhanced by preparation on a new Piastra flat-top grill for a more evenly cooked, tender and juicy taste. <– According to their release. I actually found these items to be very well prepared and not at all “boring” or “bland” I don’t like seafood AT ALL, but anything with seafood has a counterpart or can be prepared the way you like it.
The Lasagna Fresca served had seafood on it, so again I sat out of the taste fun. Everyone else at my table thought it was good though. I later learned there’s another version on the menu with a red sauce and more of a “Mexican” vibe to it, if I recall properly. The Pappardelle Pescatore was a HUGE hit with everyone except me…I looked at it and went “OH MY GOD SOOOO MUCH OCEAN” to which another girl said “Can there be too much ocean?”. Haha My Mom and sister would LOVE it! Finally, we have the Bucatini with Diavlo Sauce and Sausage Meatballs. I wasn’t excepting “spaghetti and meatballs” to be impressive. The Diavola sauce is spicy without killing your mouth, the bucatini is actually a cool thick but hallow noodle. Very awesome take on a traditional dish. I jokingly asked if I could have leftovers since this was one of the last dishes served and people were full. To my surprise they brought it back in a box for me! SCORE. Super happy about this leftover. Another dish I would for sure order in the future. All of these I think are more of the “dinner” side of ordering though…a little on the heavier side, in portion if not content.
We only tried the one salad topper and I was very impressed with how the kale, roasted tomatoes and mozzarella enhanced an already amazing salad. I did ask the price and I was told $2.99, which I think is very reasonable.
Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad Topper
Does dessert really need explained?
Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries
My only issue is with my allergies, I wish there was a wider fruit possibility or less focus on cakes or pastry based dishes. Sadly, I had to pass on the treats, but this was probably the thing everyone loved the most of the whole evening. I will say I give MAJOR props to the staff because not only did they listen to me, they actually remembered and cared. I felt like they were working WITH me to help me pick an item out, not just trying to move on to the next customer. GREAT costumer service and the type of service that’ll make me come back and feel at ease.
At the end of the meal we were all given “I heart pasta” shirts and reminded to share our thoughts with friends, family, and of course social media.
If you’d like to touch base with Olive Garden on social media hit them up at the following
Tell them what you’re most looking forward to trying. Let them know what they should introduce next.
Thanks again OG for the awesome night out!