For those who love Italian food, a never-ending pasta bowl might seem like a godsend. Olive Garden has recently re-instated this bottomless bowl from August through October 2011 for just $8.95 (a small price to pay for pounds and pounds of pasta … right?!). Most of the chain’s popular, mass-appeal entrees focus on Italian and Mediterranean dishes high in carbs— think pizza, pasta, and breads— with a large selection of healthy options hard to come by. Small icons indicate the supposedly “healthier” choices on the menu of 50+ dinner options.

olive garden pasta

Forgoing the signature bread sticks and opting for a grilled piece of fish or chicken is one suggested method to come out of this meal with limited caloric damage. But if the bread is a must, it’s important to come to the table with self-control (or a small appetite), since downing too much of the carb-heavy stuff too often will definitely add up. However, with some planning ahead, ordering a Mediterranean classic that’s fresh, light, and healthy is certainly possible.

A Nutritionist Says...

Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN says...

When I think of Olive Garden, the first thing that comes to mind is their most recent offering: a never ending pasta bowl with unlimited salad and bread sticks for only $8.95. To some people this may sound like a great deal, but so is any item off the dollar menu at McDonald’s. I was hard-pressed to find even one healthy choice on the Olive Garden menu, since most dishes are smothered in cream, fried in oil, or swimming in butter and cheese.

Of the few and limited “healthy options” that are actually on the menu, the best bet is the Grilled Salmon or the Venetian Apricot Chicken entrees. Both options come with a generous side of fiber-rich low calorie veggies in place of the carb-coma inducing pasta that most other dishes provide. Start off with a minestrone soup to prevent dipping into other appetizers, such as the sampler or a flat bread the Caprese flatbread has 600 calories/serving, a the grilled chicken flatbread has 760. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any dishes that are fried, carbohydrate-based, or covered in cheese, cream, or butter sauce— which, unfortunately, eliminates most of the menu.

Olive Garden Patrons Say...

Myra, 23, student, says …

“We come here for the pizza and cheap drinks, mostly. As far as Italian food goes, it’s pretty decent, and for us it’s a good place to come with a group since we can get away with the bill being fairly inexpensive.”

Erik Ramirez, recruiter, says …

I try to eat healthy most of the time, so I consider Olive Garden more of a treat than somewhere I’d go for a light meal. Tonight I’ll probably go for the Steak with Gorgonzola and Alfredo [Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo], which is really good. It’s probably not the healthiest thing for me since it’s beef served over pasta in an Alfredo sauce, but hey, I don’t come here that often, so I’ll just go to the gym for a bit longer this weekend I guess.”

A Restaurant Rep Says...

Olive Garden PR never responded to repeated emails and phone calls inquiring about the chain’s healthy meal offerings.

Taste Test and Final Test

Never having eaten at an Olive Garden before, I decided to try two dishes: the Cappelini di Mare and the Venetian Apricot Chicken. The Venetian Apricot Chicken, albeit one of the lighter options at 400 calories, was just mediocre in terms of taste. While I liked the apricot flavoring, my chicken was tough and left me thinking of a recipe I could make at home with a better piece of chicken (and half the calories).

A week later, I made the trip back to Olive Garden, ordering a personal family favorite that I found on the menu: seafood capellini. This Cappelini di Mare, clocking in at 650 calories, includes shrimp, clams, and mussels sautéed in white wine and garlic over pasta.

While my experience at Olive Garden wasn’t negative, as far as eating healthy, the options were limited— and, for that matter, not exactly inexpensive (outside of the endless pasta bowls, most entrees are between $15-$25). Sure, there are ways to make better choices (especially when eating Italian food) such as choosing the skinless chicken and fish dishes over carb-heavy pasta plates, but there are also other healthier chains to go to for an Italian food fix.

Photos by Cris Magliozzi

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