It might not be ready for James Beard awards or Michelin stars, but the Olive Garden holds a special place in the greater cultural and culinary landscape thanks to some American charm and feel-good foods, like endless bowls of pasta, hot garlic breadsticks and their famous hearty soups.
At just $ 11, Olive Garden’s soup, salad, and breadsticks combo is still one of the best deals in town (and by city, I mean country because these things are everywhere). But which version of this package is the best deal? To find out, I decided to try all four soups and report back with an end to fantastic rating.
Before revealing the three medalists of the competition, let’s return to the honorable mention: Pasta e Fagioli.
A mixture of this soup revealed a mixture of celery slices, carrot strips, red and white beans, tubular pasta and beef. It was a sight that had my taste buds on the edges of their figurative seats. What wonders were there in store for this combination of ingredients ?! I brought the spoon to my lips to savor the first bite… and everything was fine. I expected a chorus of spice, but the flavor of the ground beef dominated everything else. Fortunately, soaking two breadsticks provided the necessary salt for the equation. I will say that while the flavors didn’t knock me down, the soup was gone before I knew it. The thick texture was pleasant to snack on and the meal kept me feeling full all afternoon.
The minestrone soup was a melting pot of leafy greens, onions, tomatoes, celery, green beans, zucchini, pasta and beans. If this soup was a piece of clothing, it would be a cotton t-shirt. Simple, but satisfying. It’s also the only vegan soup option, so like a comfy plain white t-shirt, it can be enjoyed by anyone. I couldn’t find any flavor that was missing, so this time it was the semi-stiff breadsticks that needed the soup. My only complaint is that it looked like the peeled tomatoes had been taken out of the can and dropped directly into the whole soup. Since I’m one of those weirdos who love Bloody Marys and red sauce but can’t handle the texture of the pure fruits themselves, I ended up with three whole tomatoes at the bottom of my bowl. Granted, this is due to a personal quirk, but I know I share it with more than a few people.
This soup felt like a warm hug on a cold winter day. A creamy broth served as the base for the chicken pieces and traditional Italian meatballs, on steroids. The gnocchi were XXL, about the size of gumballs. And if you imagine something around al dente, think again. When it comes to those chewy masses, it was hard to tell where the noodle shell ends and the potato filling begins. It’s not that I’m complaining, I liked the starchy feeling. I must also highlight the beautiful partnership of the chicken and gnocchi soup with breadsticks. Plunging one into the bowl was like performing a chemical reaction that changed the two substances to create something new. In this case, the cream-soaked breadstick tasted like a salty slice of dulce de leche cake.
La Zuppa Toscana wins first prize in my book. Pieces of Italian sausage gave the dish a bacon flavor with hints of fennel and just the right amount of heat. The other mixes also offered welcome variety in size and texture, from small onion and chili flakes to coarse kale leaves and large, tender potato slices. Each spoonful was a new mix of different pieces. Here a piece, there a piece, everywhere a piece. I enjoyed this soup so much that I neglected my breadsticks until I used them to mop up the very last bits of broth!
A note on the salad
Each of my take-out salads consisted of almost a pound of iceberg lettuce and sliced onions topped with pepperoncini, sliced tomatoes and black olives (one day I had exactly two of each!) . The highlight here was the perfectly crispy croutons – wish there were more than seven or eight in a bag! But again, after eating two-foot-long breadsticks, I can’t really complain about the lack of carbs in this lunch equation.