Friday, September 11, 2009

Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl

The Olive Garden is a chain of Italian restaurants with locations across the United States. The Olive Garden is not a buffet restaurant but every so often it does run an all you care to eat special. In addition, they always have an unlimited soup and salad offering on the menu. At the current time there is an all you care to eat special that they are calling the Never Ending Pasta Bowl. This is a limited time offer, but it has been brought back through the years.

I never have had much regard for non-buffet restaurant chain all you can eat special offers. I have tried them in years past at both this chain and also the Red Lobster, a seafood chain across the U.S. that frequently offers specials of all you can eat shrimp, crab legs, etc. How this works is that yu order from the menu and your waiter or waitress brings you the first dish and when y9u want more the server must bring you another plate, and so on. My experience always has been that the first serving is brought and then when you are ready for more you can try to find your server who is avoiding your table, and when and if you find the server and ask for me, it is a big surprise - I recall the scene from the play/movie, Oliver - "Please, Sir, may I have some more?" "SOMEMORE...the boy wants somemore?" And then a song and dance number starts about how never before has a boy wanted more. Well, once you get past the - yes, bring me somemore!- the server comes back after a considerable amount of time with a few pieces of whatever it was you asked for on a small plate. Yes, this has happened consistently to me in the long past at both of these chains - and I have not gone back for one of these specials since. Until now.

The television commercial for the Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl tempted me enough to bring me back to the Olive Garden after oh so many years for one more try. I have to say that I was pleasingly surprised.

The offer is this - order a bowl of pasta in one of six pasta shapes covered in one of six different sauces. As their advertising states, there are forty two different combinations. You can keep asking for as many of these combinations as you would like. With the pasta you will also get unlimited breadsticks (more like long, narrow garlic bread rolls) and a choice of unlimited soup of your choice from the soups on the menu OR unlimited salad. The amazing price for all of this is just $8.95. If you enjoy your pasta with Italain meatballs or sausage, for an additional $1.95 you can order unlimited meatballs or sausage to accompany your pasta. You can order unlimited softdrinks - but there is no price for this on the menu. We decided on just water, but certainly it could not be much more than another $2 each, if you are inclined to soda. Right at this point, the price is good. If you are inclined to dessert you are going to pay over $6.00 or more for ONE piece of cake. Add single serving appetizers and you are getting into serious money. But the pasta is unlimited so you don't really need much more - much to our waiter's chagrin. One other word before I continue on - they are big on wine here and it is the first thing the waiter offered while holding a bottle in his hand ready to pour into the glasses on our table before offering the special menu choices. If you are so inclined, it is not cheap.

Now, we went to one of the two local Olive Gardens in our area and there was a short wait top get in - they said fifteen minutes, it was more like ten or less. I am not sure why there was a wait aother than to show off the fancy electronic pager system - not sure why they have that either as there was no place to go but the parking lot or the lobby of the restaurant. Once we were seated there were a number of vacant tables. The restaurant was not empty, but other than staggering server assignments, there was no reason to have anyone wait. But the wait was not bad - though one family came in, heard about the wait and left (I am not sure what other restaurant they were going to get to in the fifteen minutes they were told they would have to wait). Any way, we were tyaken into one of the several dining rooms and seated. Very nice, faux-rustic Italain decor. On the table was a special menu and on the front of that was the Never Ending Pasta Bowl and all of the choices for it. They did not hide the special, and while it was not the only thing we saw people at other tables ordering, it was one of the more popular choices. As I said, you order your "first" bowl of whatever combination you would like and also order soup or a salad.

Ok - the pastas - spagetti, whole wheat spagetti, linuini, fettachini, penne, and orechiette (ear-shaped pasta, similar to shells). The sauces - marinara, five cheese marinara, alfredo, meat sauce with beef and sausage within, and two new sauces introduced with this offer - Roasted Portabello Pomadoro and Creamy Parmesean Florentine. You order a pasta and a sauce. When yu want more you order any pasta and any sauce, and you can change as many times as you order another bowl. There are a nice selection of soups and you are ordering these from the standard menu - these include minnestrone, chicken and gnocci, macaroni and beans, and a spicy sausage soup. I have not used the Italian names that these soups have on the menu. If you roder salad you get a very large bowl of greens served family style to all those who order it. If you would like more soup or salad, it will be brought to you.

Together, my wife and I tasted an assortment. We went for the soup instead of the salad. I had the Chicken and Gnocci and she had the Minnestrone. The chicken soup was a cream of chicken soup that contained small chunks of chicken and a few gnocci. Gnocci is potato dumpling pasta - little balls of potato dough that is boiled like pasta to cook. My first experience with gnocci was wwhen my father made it when I was young using my Grandmother's recipe. The gnocci in the soup was not quite like Dad's, but they were not bad - though there were maybe four in the whole bowl. Of course, if I wanted more I could have asked for another bowl - which was offered when we had finished our bowls of soup. The Minnestrone was the usual tomato based, Italian vegtable soup. This one was fine, yet again, not as full of vegetables as some. All in all, the soups were good, We saw salad served on other tables and they bring a VERY large bowl for those who ordered it to share - or a similarly large bowl for one. And again, you can get more if y9u wish.

We did not get more soup - the attraction for the evening is the pasta and why get full on soup or salad - or the breadstick/garlic bread. The waiter brought out two bowls of pasta. The bowls were large in size - perhaps as large as a dinner plate about ten inches. The bowl was full of pasta but not overflowing. The pasta was covered in sauce. All was very hot when it came out - and stayed close to that throughout. I started with the fetticini with the specail roasted portobello pomadoro sauce and my wife had the whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce,. Each pasta was good. The whole wheat pasta was actually too good to be whole wheat - so much so that my wife doubted that it was - though the waiter said that it was when he put it in front of her. The Roasted Portobello Pomodoro was a chunky tomato sauce with regular mushroom slices mixed in and on the top were a few strips of portobello mushrooms. It was tasty. My wife felt that the marinara was spicy. It should not have been. I tried some of hers and did not find it that. It seemed mild to me. It is possible that she was just feeling whatever spice had been in the Minnestrone. When the pasta is served you are offered freshly grated cheese which is ground over your bowl by your server. I enjoyed my first bowl eager to see what was to come. Would the waiter dissappear?

As we were coming to the bottom of our bowls of pasta the waiter appeared. To my pleasant surprise he asked if we wanted then to order the next bowl or would we want to finish our bowls and then order another - as they come out quickly, he said. We said we would wait. When we had finished, in a few minutes the waiter reappeared and asked if we were ready to order more. This time I ordered the little ear pasta and the creamy parmasean florentine sauce adn my wife ordered the penne with meat sauce. True to form for these types of specials in this type of restaurant, when the next bowls were served, gone where the large, dinner plate sized bowls and now the pasta was served in a smaller bowl - perhaps six or seven inches across. Ok, less pasta - or at least the suggestion of less pasta, but you can still ask for more. The creamy parmasean florentine is described as an alfredo sauce with spinich. What they do not say is that this is raw spinach leaves torn up and put over the top of the pasta and alfredo sauce. The taste was nice but I had expected cooked spinach and did care as much as I would have liked. The meat sauce was not heavily loaded with meat but the meat was evident. My wife says that she did not notice if there actually was sausage meat mixed in with the beef. I tasted it and it was not bad.

Let's face it - and this is what Olive Garden is counting on for a $9 all you care to eat dinner - there is just so much pasta one can eat at one meal. By the end of the second bowl my wife was ready to stop and I was not far from it. But, of course, I had to go on to at least one more bowl. Again, the waiter did not dissapoint and appeared in a timely manner to ask if we would like another bowl. I had the penne in five cheese marinara sauce. This sauce was much like an ala vodka sauce with9ut the vodoka - a creamy red tomato sauce that was thick with cheese - which may have been what made it creamy in the first place. It was a very nice sauce. Again, this pasta arrived in the small bowl. I made it through three quartes of the bowl before I had to call it quits. Unlless you intend to marathon eat this meal, there is not much more than three bowls that the average preson is going to eat.

I was full, but I also wanted to see something involving my left over pasta. At every other table, there servers were rushing to bring take out boxes and bags for people to take their left overs hoke with them including the garlic rolls. Would I be offered to take my left over pasta home and the almost full basket of garlic bread breadsticks? The answer is no.

I found the $8.95 Never Ending Pasta Bowl to be a very satisfying meal. The value was great, the food was good, and there was plenty to eat without any real effort to get the refills. If you like pasta and can eat your fill of it - this is the dinner to go for.

Olive Garden restaurants are all over in many states. This offer is for a limited time and in a few months or even less, call first to see if it is still offered (if you are no longer seeing the commercials). If it is gone, it will come back at some point. The hours at the Olive Garden may vary by location but many are open until 10 on weeknights and 11 on Friday and Saturdays.


Robert A said...

This offer at the Olive Garden is only good until October 11, 2009. Get there while you can or wait until they repeat this offer again. It will be back!

Anonymous said...

At our olive garden in san Diego CA area they let you take the leftovers including the bread and salad