In his restaurant review this week, New York Times critic Pete Wells quipped, “Sea urchin pasta is so popular now, it will probably turn up on the menu at the Olive Garden before the year is over.” His prediction is likely a little closer to reality than Wells might imagine. Olive Garden has just done a major overhaul of its menu, the largest overhaul in the chain's history. And the added dishes take significant steps toward the new gourmand sensibilities of Middle America, brought on by the Food Network, Top Chef and the foodification of everything. 

It's an interesting phenomenon to see a chain such as Olive Garden, which has long been synonymous with the kind of bad taste coastal snobs like to scoff at, move in a new food-forward direction. The change comes as a way to energize the brand, which has seen its sales drop recently. So if Olive Garden is getting more upscale, and chef-driven restaurants are far more casual than they used to be, will all of America end up at the small-plates summit smack-dab in the middle? We went and tasted some of the new menu items at Olive Garden to find out. 

Chicken Abruzzi at Olive Garden; Credit: B. Rodell

Chicken Abruzzi at Olive Garden; Credit: B. Rodell

The answer is, not quite yet. It's true, Olive Garden has added dishes that you might find on a menu at a trendy Italian bistro. For instance, a new shrimp dish — not an appetizer but a “small plate” — comes over polenta with olives, capers and tomato. It's not bad. There's also a focus on health, with quite a few dishes that come in at under 575 calories. For instance, the Chicken Abruzzi, which is strips of chicken breast in a broth with cannellini beans, kale and vegetables. It tastes like diet food, but at least it's diet food with real greens instead of fake cheese. 

But there are also dishes such as chicken topped with crab meat in a lemon cream sauce, and overcooked salmon over something called seafood risotto that was more like sloppy rice. 

The truth is that even with the new menu items, the place where Olive Garden succeeds the most is with gloppy, creamy pasta dishes. There's a new section of the menu called “cucina mia,” in which you can mix and match pastas and sauces. There's even a gluten-free pasta option. The creamy sundried tomato sauce was addictive in the way most salty, creamy things laden with fat are — especially when served over a bowl of carbs. 

It's great that Olive Garden is offering some more healthful dishes, and more fresh herbs and the like are never a bad idea. But my guess is that people will continue to go there for the same things they always have: affordable, slutty pseudo-Italian food. And yes, the new salted caramel tiramisu absolutely falls into that category. 

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