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In January, just in time for New Year’s resolutions, Olive Garden will introduce its “Tastes of the Mediterranean” menu, a revamped version of the chain’s “lighter fare” offerings. The menu includes six dishes, two of them brand new, all of them under 600 calories, and all of them promising big flavor in satisfying portions. But do they deliver? There’s only one way to find out: Eat all of them.
This is how, one recent lunchtime, I found myself at my local Olive Garden, staring down five plates of food (plus salad and breadsticks of course). I got a sneak peek of the two new dishes — Linguine di Mare and Chicken Margherita — and tried some of the older ones that will be sticking around: Shrimp Scampi, Chicken Piccata and Herb-Grilled Salmon (we skipped the Tilapia Piccata, but they’ll have that too).
For me, Olive Garden is a nostalgic thing. I went occasionally as a kid in suburban New Jersey, I’m pretty sure I always ordered the fettucine alfredo, and I mostly just remember devouring the breadsticks. I’ve only been once since then, last year, with a friend who had a Neverending Pasta Pass to burn — I got the 5-Cheese Marinara. In general, counting calories is not my thing, so I’m skeptical of “lighter fare.” So I went my tasting experience cautiously optimistic: cautious that “lighter fare” might be code for “bland” or “not pasta,” optimistic that at least there would be breadsticks. Now, having eaten my weight in chicken, seafood, and pasta (yes there is pasta), here’s what I learned.
The 500-calorie Shrimp Scampi is in many ways what started it all. It first landed on the menu, along with the Chicken Piccata, as a limited-time special at the beginning of the year. But it quickly rose to become the second best-selling dish on the menu (fettucine alfredo is always and forever number one dish), edging out perennial favorites like lasagna. So Olive Garden decided to make it a permanent part of the menu, and to round it out with other Mediterranean-inspired low-calorie dishes that people would (hopefully) also love. All go heavy on ingredients like garlic, lemon and capers, to try to pile on flavor without piling on pounds
And yes, the Shrimp Scampi, a pile of shrimp, asparagus and chopped tomato in a garlicky sauce over angel hair pasta is good. It could have used a tad more salt, and I’m not sure how I feel about eating asparagus in the middle of winter, but the garlic sauce was silky and the portion was a good size. I honestly would not have known this was a low-calorie dish if the menu hadn’t told me. It’s a big bowl of pasta! And the sauce, though nowhere near alfredo level, still tastes rich.
The new Linguine di Mare (570 calories) is the red sauce counterpart to the scampi. Here a big bowl of pasta comes tossed in a basic pomodoro sauce, and topped with handfuls of shrimp, mussels and whole roasted garlic cloves. The seafood is fresh and briny, and the roasted garlic is a flash of genius I honestly didn’t expect of Olive Garden. I was also shocked to learn that the linguine is whole grain — it’s indistinguishable from regular pasta, not gritty or wheat-y at all. But the sauce itself is one of the most noticeably “healthful” things on this menu, meaning low on salt and fat. If you’re not counting calories too hard, it wouldn’t hurt to ask for a few turns of the cheese grater on this one. Sure, cheese on seafood pasta is supposed to be a big no-no, but this is Olive Garden, and I don’t think anyone will judge you for it.
Speaking of cheese, the new Chicken Margherita (590 calories) has plenty of it. Two chicken breasts, pounded thin and grilled, come topped with mozzarella cheese, pesto, roasted cherry tomatoes and a lemon garlic sauce. Several planks of zucchini, topped with Parmesan bread crumbs and baked, are served on the side (good, but if calories were no object I’d want more than three). This one might be a bit less filling than the pasta dishes, but it is more flavorful thanks to the double punch of lemon and fresh, garlicky pesto. It was my favorite of the two new dishes. If you want to have your low-calorie dish and eat your cheese too, this is the dish to get.
Chicken Piccata (500 calories), meanwhile, had just as much flavor minus the cheese. It comes in a similar lemon garlic sauce, with a generous scattering of capers and sundried tomatoes over the top, and those same zucchini planks. There’s also a grilled lemon half on the side, but the sauce is so tart already I can’t imagine you’d need it. Again, it won’t fill you up like a big bowl of pasta, but the capers and lemon add more salt and zip than you’ll get in either pasta dish. Out of all the dishes I tried, I actually think I liked it even better than the Chicken Margherita, but that could just be because I’m a sucker for capers. Between the two, it’s a close race.
And finally there’s the Herb-Grilled Salmon (460 calories), an older menu item and the odd one out. With just a light coating of garlic herb butter and a side of steamed broccoli, it's not very exciting. I admit, I tried it last, so I was at least one chicken breast and half a bowl of pasta in, and my appetite may have been flagging. But maybe I tried it last because out of everything I tried, it’s the only thing that really screams “diet food.” If you like salmon a lot, fine. Otherwise, skip it, because you can feel just as self righteous — or just as entitled to more of those bottomless breadsticks — while ordering any of the other dishes, and still feel like you’re living a little.
Now, I can tell you that as far as Olive Garden food goes, these dishes are all good, and better than you might expect from “lighter fare”. But having eaten five at once (plus salad and breadsticks!), I can’t tell you for sure whether they will leave you feeling light and healthy. I obviously didn’t finish them all, but after hopping from Chicken Piccata to Linguine di Mare to yet another bite of scampi, I personally left as stuffed as if I’d polished off a bowl of fettucine alfredo. Which is fine by me.