It may not be up for any James Beard awards or Michelin stars, but the Olive Garden holds a special place in the greater cultural-culinary landscape thanks to a certain Americana charm and feel-good foods, like never-ending bowls of filling pasta, warm garlic-y breadsticks, and their famous hearty soups.
At just $11, Olive Garden’s soup, salad, and breadsticks lunch combo is still one of the best deals in town (and by town 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 a ranking from fine to fantastico.
Before we reveal the competition’s three medalists, let’s meet the honorable mention: Pasta e Fagioli.
A stir of this soup revealed commingling celery slices, slivers of carrots, red and white beans, tube pasta, and beef. It was a vision that had my taste buds on the edges of their figurative seats. What wonders were in store from this combination of ingredients?! I lifted the spoon to my lips to savor the first bite…and it was okay. I had been expecting a chorus of spices, but the flavor of the ground beef overpowered everything else. Luckily, dipping two breadsticks provided some needed salt to the equation. I will say that while the flavors didn’t knock my socks off, the soup was gone before I knew it. The chunky texture was enjoyable to munch 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, shell pasta, and beans. If this soup were an item of clothing, it would be a cotton t-shirt. Simple, yet satisfying. It’s also the one vegan soup option, so like a comfy plain white tee, it can be enjoyed by everyone. I didn’t find any flavors to be lacking, so this time, it was the semi-stiff breadstick that needed the soup. My one complaint is that it looked like the peeled tomatoes had been taken out of the can and plopped directly into the soup whole. Since I’m one of those weirdos who loves Bloody Marys and red sauce but can’t deal with the texture of the unadulterated fruits themselves, I found myself left with three whole tomatoes at the bottom of my bowl. Granted, that’s due to a personal quirk, but one I know that I share with more than a few people.
This soup felt like a warm hug on a cold winter’s day. A creamy broth provided the base for chunks of chicken and the traditional Italian dumplings, on steroids. The gnocchi was XXL, about the size of gumballs. And if you’re imagining anything in the vicinity of al dente, think again. When it came to these chewy masses, it was hard to tell where the noodle casing ended and the potato filling began. Not that I’m complaining—I quite enjoyed the starchy sensation. I also have to call out the chicken & gnocchi soup’s beautiful partnership with breadsticks. Dipping one into the bowl was like performing a chemical reaction that altered both substances to create something new. In this case, the cream-soaked breadstick tasted something like a salty slice of dulce de leche cake.
The Zuppa Toscana takes the top prize in my book. Pieces of Italian sausage lent the dish a bacony flavor with hints of fennel and just the right amount of heat. The other mix-ins also provided a welcome variety in terms of size and texture—from little onion and pepper flakes to coarse kale leaves and big tender slices of potatoes. Each spoonful was a new medley of different chunks. Here a chunk, there a chunk, everywhere a chunk chunk. I enjoyed this soup so much that I neglected my breadsticks until I used them to sop up the very last bits of broth!
Each of my salads-to-go was comprised of nearly a pound of iceberg lettuce and sliced onions topped sparsely with pepperoncini, tomato slices, and black olives (one day I got exactly two of each!). The highlight here was the perfectly crunchy croutons — I wish there had been more than seven or eight to a bag! But then again, after eating two-foot-long breadsticks, I can’t really complain about a lack of carbs in this lunchtime equation