The Olive Garden is one of the most well-established casual dining restaurants in America, with about 880 locations.
Founded in late 1982, this year marks the 40th that the company has been welcoming diners to sit down and enjoy plentiful servings of pasta, salad, and, of course, the famed breadsticks.
But the chain has its share of detractors, as evidenced by even the quickest glance at comments on any mainstream social media platform. For example, one recent Tweet from a user named Lil Kimchi read: “Almost everything at Olive Garden gets microwaved.” Another, from a user called Sandy Joe Karpetz read: “It pains me that my very Last Meal in a restaurant before the pandemic was at an Olive Garden.”
On the other hand, plenty of people love the place. Enough that the chain generated $3.59 billion in 2021 despite occasional closures forced by COVID-19, though the sales were still below the $4.01 billion in 2020 and $4.29 billion from 2019, according to Statista.
Whether you love or hate it, there are a few things the restaurant would rather you didn’t know.
For more, check out 10 Secrets Hooters Doesn’t Want You To Know.
Sure, when you go out to eat at a restaurant you’re usually trying to avoid the responsibility of cooking a meal. That being said, inflation isn’t slowing down, so staying in and throwing together a pasta soiree may help in sticking to a lower spending budget. Olive Garden has silently posted a number of its staple recipes online over the years, including the chicken gnocchi soup, chicken Marsala, and even the brand’s most popular dish ingredient, the alfredo sauce recipe. Next time you’re having an Olive Garden craving, you might not have to leave your home at all.
The Olive Garden likes to tout the fact that it has a cooking school in Tuscany, Italy. But it doesn’t–not a real cooking school comparable to, say, the Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu. According to Eater, what actually happens is that the company rents out a Tuscan hotel and restaurant for a period of time during its off-season and sends a handful of managers there to eat some Italian food and have a bit of interaction with local chefs.
Though a perennially popular Olive Garden menu item, the chain’s Chicken and Gnocchi soup is one to skip if you value your health. It’s packed with 1,290 milligrams of sodium, which is well over half the doctor-recommended maximum for an entire day. And it’s also rather high in saturated fat.
Yes, the breadsticks at the Olive Garden are never-ending, but you’ll have to be quite patient if you want to fill up on them. According to Reader’s Digest, waiters are obliged to bring just one breadstick per diner per basket delivered, with the only exception being one extra breadstick in the first basket.
In the eyes of most cooks, preparing pasta in salted boiling water is simply the way to do it, there’s no question in the matter. But according to Business Insider, Olive Garden employees are expressly prohibited from salting the water because it causes wear and tear on the pots, breaking them down too quickly and impacting the bottom line.
A former Olive Garden employee opened up about some of the chain’s kitchen practices in a Quora Q&A forum and revealed that the pasta is never cooked fresh. In fact, the chefs boil huge portions of pasta to an al dente finish every morning, then toss it into ice water baths. When a customer orders a dish, they place enough for the serving back into boiling water to rapidly finish the cooking.
Last year, a former employee of the chain revealed several behind-the-scenes secrets about Olive Garden on Tiktok. One of the things she mentioned is that Olive Garden uses microwaves to heat up pre-made items. “Yes, they do use a microwave,” the former server is said to have alleged about Olive Garden. “Your potatoes, your veggies, certain sauces, and some of your meats are just microwaved and put on your plate.”
The same employee said the chain’s chicken is less than top-notch. “All across the board, they changed their chicken about six years ago from good chicken to chicken that’s not so great,” Newsweek reported the former employee saying. “It’s not 100 percent chicken, and the chicken that comes on the never-ending pasta bowl is actually canned chicken. Or, canned mystery chicken.”
However, Olive Garden told Eat This, Not That! the claims about canned chicken aren’t true and that absolutely none of the chicken served at the restaurant comes from a can.
A version of this story was originally published in May 2022. It has been updated to include new information.