Not long after returning to the US, I find myself on another work trip up to North Dakota. This seemed like a great opportunity to have dinner at the world-renowned Olive Garden in Grand Forks.
While Ms. Hagerty’s review certainly can’t be topped, I figured that since this was the first time I’ve eaten at an Olive Garden since visiting Sicily (even since last year!) it was worth a visit if only for science, and, um, the Internets. Anyway…
A year after its bombshell debut, I half expected this Olive Garden to be completely deserted, if the parking lot at the Texas Roadhouse next door is any indication. However, when I arrived there was a healthy collection of GM’s finest parked outside. While Olive Garden pushes the Tuscan theme pretty heavily, I’d say the exterior invokes feelings of “Tuscan Ski Lodge” more than anything else. If that’s a thing.
It’s certainly unique in that it looks nothing like any of the other structures from here to the next Olive Garden in Fargo.
Greeters held the doors for me as I entered, though I noted the interesting combination of Tuscan decor and Top 20 Pop music over the radio. They were all songs I liked, but definitely not in keeping with the ambiance.
As I was dining alone, I was quickly seated in the bar, where I chose a booth so I could have a better view of the restaurant, and the outside.
The ambiance was as advertised: very nice for a late lunch, especially if your alternative is Texas Roadhouse where they line dance on the hour. This is much more subdued (aside from the pop music).
The waitress came by and took my drink order, giving me a pile of menus to choose from. I asked about the specials, and they were offering bottomless pasta for $9.99. Oh dear.
The wine list was quite extensive, featuring both whites and reds. Some were even from Italy. I wound up choosing the Nero d’Avola, since that’s what I drank most while we were in Sicily. As back-up options, I also ordered an Amber Bock and a water. The water came highly recommended by Ms. Hagerty herself, so I made sure to order one of those, too.
There were no fewer than three soups on offer today. The waitress described two of them as “Minestrone, like a vegetable soup” and “Pasta Fagioli, like a chili”. The third option was Zuppa Toscana, and since I’m scared to think of what a chili-adjacent Pasta Fagioli is like, I went with that. For my entree, I ordered the Chicken Parmigiana.
I think the waitress could have described the soup as “Zuppa Toscana, like clam chowder but with sausage”. It was creamy, and very, very salty. Not wonderful. However, the dishes are in a very country-Italian-watercolor style, so extra points for authenticity. The soup came with Olive Garden’s usual breadsticks, which were as habit-forming as ever. The wine tasted mostly like tangy nitrates, nothing like the real deal.
By the time I’d finished my soup, my Chicken Parmigiana had arrived.
I think it was plated by a moose. Unfortunately, I didn’t include anything for scale, because this is a picture of what was actually an impossible amount of food. Unfortunately, it was also terrible. The sauce and the chicken were completely without flavor, and the noodles were way overcooked. In Sicily, a dish like this would at least be salty beyond survival.
Sicilians must really hate eating out in Tuscany.
Despite the disappointing state of my chicken, I powered through it anyway since people here give you nasty looks if you don’t clean your plate. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat any more, I was reminded of another Olive Garden tradition:
Mints with the check. These went surprisingly well with the wine.
So there you have it folks. If you find yourself in the North-est of North Dakota, stop by The Most Famous Olive Garden in the World, but don’t expect it to be much more than that.
The water, however, was mind-blowingly good.