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New Olive Garden menu offers greater variety, express lunch, with Italian spicy chicken wings and more, Olive Garden is really cooking

Posted on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 4:32 pm

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By Peter Covino
A&E Editor
If you haven’t been to the Olive Garden lately, you haven’t been to the Olive Garden.
Being raised on home-cooked Italian meals from mom and dad as well as  grandparents and various aunts, Olive Garden never especially said “Italy” to me.
Sure, the lunch bunch at the office would load up the car every once in a while for the restaurant’s popular lunch combo (unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks), but it had been a while since I actually ordered off the menu.
I got a chance to sample some of what is new at the Olive Garden across from The Loop in Kissimmee last week, and with so many new offerings, Olive Garden is almost a brand-new experience.
The changes are the biggest ever in the history of the Darden Restaurant’s chain. The very first Olive Garden was opened in Orlando in 1982.
The new menu is impressive, but not intimidating.
There are more than 20 all-new items on the menu, but it actually is more varied than that thanks to new menu sections such as Cucina Mia, where for just $9.99, guests can choose from six different pastas and four different sauces made fresh in the kitchen each day.
I sat and talked with Kissimmee restaurant general manager Lina Dar, while sampling some of the new offerings.
“It’s a big change,” for regular Olive Garden diners, Dar said, but many of the traditional favorites are still on the menu.
I tried a selection from the Cucina Mia part of the menu. Dar suggested the tri-colored vegetable penne with a primavera sauce (marinara with zucchini, red peppers, onions and tomatoes). We also added sausage and meatballs as a topping for an additional $1.99.
Everything tasted fresh from the kitchen as advertised, particularly the vegetables. The pasta selections also include a whole wheat linguine and a gluten-free rotini.
Of course you expect to find pasta of various shapes and sizes on the menu at Olive Garden, but how about chicken wings?
It’s another one of the new items, said Dar, and available for a limited time.
Unless it proves to be popular with guests, and these wings are should prove to be pretty popular.
Called  Spicy Calabrian Wings on the menu, this is not the standard fare you find at those other popular wing joints. These are, indeed, spicy wings, flavored with garlic and chili peppers from Calabria, served with gorgonzola dipping sauce. They aren’t too hot, but you can increase the heat with the side of Calabrian chili paste included. The wings are $9.29.
My favorite of the new menu items I sampled was the Salmon Bruchetta. It is pricier than most menu items at $19.49, but this is a nice-sized serving of grilled salmon filet, atop bruschetta. It is seasoned just right with tomatoes, basil pesto, served on freshly prepared seafood risotto with crab meat.
Another nice menu option, with new choices, is Tastes of Italy. These small plate items offer an excellent variety of regionally inspired items, in small sizes. I sampled the Polenta Shrimp all Greca ($5.50), sautéed shrimp served on creamy polenta and topped with a blend of olives, capers and tomato sauce.
The menu suggests ordering two or more of the “Tastes” to share for the table.  Other new Taste of Italy options include Tortellini al Forno (cheese and prosciutto-filled tortellini in a parmesan cream sauce, topped with bacon); Tuscan White Bean Hummus, the Mediterranean favorite with a Italian twist; and Chicken Meatballs. All Taste items are priced at either $4.50 or $5.
Early diners might want to make sure they arrive before 6 p.m. All the small plates are just $4 each, Monday through Friday.
As part of the Tastes and Toasts of Italy menu, not only are the small plates only $4 until 4 p.m., but there also is a selection of wine, cocktails and beer priced from just $3 (for Moretti Italian lager in a bottle). Wine and cocktails are $4 to $5.50.
The lunch combo of unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks always has been very popular at $6.99. Olive Garden has sweetened the deal with a new $2.99 add on with your choice of four Italian small plates, pasta sides or salad toppers.
You can choose from the already mentioned Chicken Meatballs or Tuscan White Bean Hummus as well as Crispy Risotto Bites and Parmesan Asparagus.
Pasta sides include fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti with meat sauce or ziti with five-cheese marinara.
It is part of the new Pronto Lunch at Olive Garden. The Pronto Lunch also includes sandwich and flatbread combinations (featured items include The Italiano Burger and Smashed Chicken Meatball Sandwich) for those who don’t have time for a more casual lunch.
The Classic Lunch menu also is available.
For the diet conscious, Olive Garden dinner menu offers several new lighter Italian fare items (entrees under 575 calories). New lighter items include Center Cut Filet Mignon; Baked Tilapia with Shrimp; Garlic Rosemary Chicken and Chicken Abruzzi.
For salad lovers, you can pretty much make a meal out of your salad by adding a salad topper (an Italian meat and cheese variety or the all veggie and cheese roasted tomato Caprese) for just $2.99.
There are several other new menu items as well.
And whether it is a new item or a traditional favorite, all entrees still include a choice of homemade soup or salad and those popular unlimited garlic breadsticks, baked fresh all-day long.
Dar, who has been with Olive Garden for more than 10 years and has been at the Kissimmee location since it opened, has more than a head start when it comes to what is on the menu at Olive Garden. She has been to the restaurant’s culinary institute in Tuscany.
All Olive Garden’s nationwide feature the new big changes on the menu.
According to Olive Garden’s executive vice president of marketing Jay Spenchian (via a press release):
“Our new menu is designed to give our guests an enhanced experience by giving them new flavors, more variety and everyday value. “We’re staying true to the fresh, simple Italian food, while creating more ways to delight our guests,” he said.
 Free cone day
One of the happiest days of the year for ice cream lovers is Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry’s.
The Ben & Jerry’s store at The Loop in Kissimmee will continue the Free Cone Day tradition April 8 from noon until 8 p.m. Free cones will be handed out by the local Boys and Girls Club.
Condiments Bracket
Yes, it is that time again. All across the nation, you can hear the sound of paper being torn to shreds, followed by a loud expletive deleted, as another NCAA Basketball Bracket sheet is laid to rest.
So maybe you won’t get Warren Buffet’s billion dollars this year. You can always play the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council Hot Dog Condiment Tournament. You can vote online for your favorite hot dog toppings in the March Madness style tournament online at the council’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/NHDSC). Voting continues throughout the month with a winner announced April 7.
You can’t win a billion dollar first prize but if you vote in each poll, you get a National Hot Dog & Sausage Council T-shirt.

The bracket features a wet condiment side and a dry condiment side. On the wet side, favorites such as mustard, relish, chili and coleslaw will take on sauerkraut, ketchup, BBQ sauce and mayonnaise. The dry condiment side features onions, cheese, tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, bacon, pickles and pulled pork. Each day fans will choose their preferred topping with the winners moving on until the ultimate champion is crowned.
“Debates over the best hot dog toppings are practically brawl inducing, “said NHDSC President and ‘Queen of Wien’ Janet Riley, in the council’s press release. “Each region of the country has its favorites and as the national voice of hot dogs, we believe it is our responsibility to officially crown a champion.”
This is the second year for the tournament.  Last year in a battle of regional hot dogs vs. sausages that featured several upsets, the West Virginia dog, with chili, mustard and coleslaw atop a wiener on a steamed bun, took home the title, beating out the bratwurst in the finals.

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