13 Facts You Should Know About Olive Garden

"When you're here, you're family," Olive Garden's former slogan proclaimed. And just like in a real family, we have a love/hate relationship with the Italian restaurant chain. Sure, the breadsticks are butter and garlic-covered delights, and there are more opportunities to eat on a budget at Olive Garden than at many other chain restaurants. But if you're looking for authentic Italian food that transports you to Sicily, you may be out of luck.

Whether you're a casual Olive Garden fan or a Lifetime Pasta Pass-carrying regular, there's always more to discover about the popular chain. Are the "Never-Ending" breadsticks truly never-ending? Just how Italian is this Italian restaurant's food? And can we buy those delectable after-dinner mints in bulk?

We set out to answer all this and more when we researched the life and times of Olive Garden. From good press to bad press to everything in between, the brand's legacy isn't exactly untarnished. Here are some facts about Olive Garden that every restaurant-goer should know. You may see its other former slogan, "Go Olive Garden," in a new light.

You can order breadsticks just to bring home

Go to Olive Garden for the semi-authentic Italian food, but stay for the breadsticks. Nothing says "welcome home" like a basket of warm, freshly baked breadsticks brushed with oil and butter and sprinkled with salt and garlic. These treats have earned legendary status, and the restaurant knows it. It has offered numerous promotions surrounding its famous starter, from its unlimited breadsticks policy to its Never-Ending soup, salad, and breadsticks combo. And now, Olive Garden has expanded the availability of its delicious carb bombs even further.

If you ever have a hankering for Olive Garden's breadsticks but don't want to eat an entire meal, you can buy them on their own. You can even order the breadsticks to go if you're so inclined. They're available freshly baked so that you can chow down on a crunchy treat ASAP. But if you want to enjoy an Olive Garden breadstick whenever your heart desires, you can purchase up to 12 of them unbaked. These "Bake-At-Home" breadsticks come with easy-to-follow instructions, so you can basically become an Olive Garden chef from your own kitchen. You only need an oven, butter, salt, and a healthy obsession with garlic. Whether it's better than Tasting Table's recipe for garlic and herb breadsticks is up to you to decide.

There's a gluten-sensitive menu, but not gluten-free

As per the Cleveland Clinic, there's a marked difference between celiac disease, a wheat allergy, and gluten intolerance/sensitivity. Someone with gluten sensitivity may feel sick after eating gluten, but someone with Celiac disease may experience acute damage to their small intestine. And if someone is allergic to gluten, the effects could be life-threatening.

Anyone with gluten issues needs to keep track of which common foods aren't gluten-free, but they probably wouldn't expect Olive Garden to have much to offer them anyway. Everything from carb-rich pasta to parmigiana is going to be a no-go for people with gluten issues. On the bright side, gluten-sensitive individuals have a few options at Olive Garden.

The gluten-sensitivity menu is small, but there's enough to satisfy a hungry belly. The 6 oz sirloin should do the trick, as should the grilled salmon with gluten-free herbs. But if your gluten-sensitive gut is still hungry for carbs, try the gluten-free rotini pasta with marinara sauce. It's important to remember that Olive Garden doesn't promise that every gluten-sensitive meal will be completely gluten-free. So if even the slightest traces of gluten are dangerous for you, stick to the veggies — or maybe find a different restaurant.

You can buy Olive Garden's signature salad dressing in grocery stores

Olive Garden's salad dressing options are nothing if not surprising. What gives an Italian chain restaurant the right to create a truly unique, genuinely delicious salad dressing of all things? A tasty marinara sauce, sure. But dressing? Ordering a salad at an Italian restaurant feels almost sacrilegious. Do you mean you ordered salad when there's chicken alfredo on the menu? — but the dressing makes it okay. Sure, it helps that the salad ingredients are usually fresh. But it's the dressing that makes the real magic. And luckily for us, the salad dressing is so beloved that Olive Garden started bottling and selling it.

"This recipe has been a favorite with our guests for almost 30 years," the bottle of Olive Garden's signature Italian dressing claims. The dressing is indeed light enough to complement a salad without overpowering the ingredients, and it's creamy enough to be served as a vegetable dip. The ingredients aren't surprising — vinegar, salt, egg, Romano cheese, and garlic, to name a few — but something about Olive Garden's salad dressing makes it pop. You can buy it from your local grocery store, Amazon, and Olive Garden's website. 

Olive Garden's Harvest Program donates leftover food

Olive Garden's Harvest program is dedicated to donating fresh food to people who would otherwise never be able to afford the restaurant's fare. It is not unusual for its restaurants to have leftover food at the end of the night. Instead of throwing it away, the company donates the most high-quality leftover food to nonprofit organizations that alleviate food insecurity. According to Olive Garden, the participating nonprofit organizations receive leftover food from the restaurant each week. General Manager Will Cerrud described it as "Something that our team members and managers can take pride in knowing that we're helping other communities and we're just not grabbing food and throwing it away. It shows our spirit of Italian generosity as well."

In 2022, Feeding America (pdf) published a troubling statistic: Nearly 30% of the people going hungry in the U.S. don't qualify for SNAP benefits, so they depend on organizations like Feeding America to survive. Olive Garden's partnership with Feeding America has positively impacted communities in every U.S. state. The restaurant claims its parent company, Darden, has donated over $16 million to support Feeding America. This money has gone to food banks, mobile food pantries, and food transportation. Darden raked in over $10 billion in 2023, which makes $16 million seem like a drop in the bucket. But when it comes to food security, every little bit helps.

There's a difference between the Lifetime Pasta Pass and the Never-Ending Pasta Pass

Don't be fooled! Olive Garden's Lifetime Pasta Pass and Never-Ending Pasta Pass are completely different deals. Knowing which is which before you drop hundreds of dollars on one is important. The Never-Ending Pasta Pass ($100) doesn't refer to the amount of time you'll be able to use it; it is only redeemable for nine weeks. You can eat as much pasta as your heart (or stomach) desires, but only if you order specifically from the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu — and only during that nine-week window.

In 2019, Olive Garden's Never-Ending Pasta Pass sold out in seconds. And although 20,400 people tried to snatch up a Lifetime Pasta Pass, only 50 lucky people walked away with the golden ticket — for an exorbitant price. Don't get us wrong; the Lifetime Pasta Pass is a fantastic opportunity for those who can't get their fill of Olive Garden pasta. Unlike the Never-Ending Pasta Pass, the Lifetime Pasta Pass is redeemable for the rest of your life. However, the Lifetime Pasta Pass cost at least $400 in 2019, so there's no telling how much it will cost if it is ever available for purchase again.

Olive Garden doesn't serve pasta al dente or salt pasta water

We associate a few traditional cooking techniques with Italian cuisine, and preparing pasta "al dente" is one of them. Understanding essential Italian cooking terms like "al dente" usually elevates a dish and makes it more authentic. You trace even something as simple as salting the water before adding the pasta back to your ancestor's kitchen in Tuscany. It's not unreasonable to expect Olive Garden's cooks to adhere to traditional Italian cooking methods. But apparently, this isn't always the case.

You won't find al dente pasta at Olive Garden. As common as the cooking method is in Italy, al dente pasta — or pasta served slightly undercooked so it has a snappier bite — is not often seen in Americanized cuisine. The uncultured palate would take a bite of al dente pasta and claim that it is underdone. Olive Garden avoids this fate by simply cooking its pasta all the way through. Tasting Table has long been a proponent of salting pasta water — it may even be a big mistake to skip this step — but the restaurant chain takes its chances. Olive Garden would rather preserve its pots and pans than add salt to pasta water. We can feel Nonna's disapproval from here.

Olive Garden has improved its sustainability practices

There's no excuse for not being sustainable these days. Olive Garden has long received criticism for its unsustainable sourcing methods over the years, but it wasn't until the 2010s that the restaurant faced backlash on a public scale. An organization called Good Food Now, which fights for the welfare of the environment and health and animal safety in the restaurant industry, officially called Olive Garden out in 2016. The organization zeroed in on Darden, the restaurant's parent company, which owns other well-known chain restaurants in the U.S., from Longhorn Steakhouse to The Capital Grille. "Unfortunately, many Darden restaurants serve unhealthy, unsustainable meals — including meals with factory-farmed meat and dairy products produced with routine antibiotics, hormones and other harmful chemicals," Good Food Now claims.

Darden responded to the criticism by adopting strict food principles: 1) to provide high-quality ingredients that have been safely and sustainably sourced, 2) to adhere to the Supplier Code of Conduct, and 3) to ensure that suppliers stick to the 'Five Freedoms' of care when raising animals. Darden also highlights its roles as a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef and as a member of the National Cattleman's Beef Association.

The after-dinner mints are specifically designed for Olive Garden

The complimentary chocolate mint guests receive at the end of each meal sets Olive Garden apart from other restaurants. It's a clever tactic. Who wouldn't want to pop a palate-cleansing mint into their mouth after scarfing down garlicky Italian food? The chocolate mints have a strong flavor and feel more cleansing than the average peppermint or Lifesaver mint.

While some restaurants offer mints near the host's desk, at Olive Garden, the mints are brought right to your table. It's a small but effective move that makes customers feel they're getting something special for free. Of course, it doesn't take a chocolate expert to notice that the mints are just Andes mints, a well-known chocolate brand you can buy from almost any grocery store. Or are they?

Although they seem like regular Andes chocolate mints at first glance, they're slightly different. This variety is custom-made for the restaurant chain, and instead of having three layers, they're just two: one of mint and one of chocolate. The mints are specifically designed and packaged for Olive Garden, so you probably won't find these particular mints anywhere else.

Jimmy Fallon owned Olive Garden's slogan

Most of us grew up with the slogan "When you're here, you're family" being attributed to Olive Garden. But now, the slogan belongs entirely to someone else. Yes, you can "own" a former slogan if you're rich and important enough. Olive Garden deemed Jimmy Fallon rich and important enough, as it licensed the slogan to the talk show host in 2013. 

According to Fallon, the idea was for "When you're here, you're family" to be the "new slogan" of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." The contract was signed on-air, so the slogan was licensed to "Late Night" for a while. However, this changed a few years later when Fallon gave the slogan to a famous Olive Garden fan.

By 2018, Fallon had moved on to "The Tonight Show" and was ready to move on from the slogan, too. While enjoying an on-air Olive Garden dinner with Post Malone, an admirer of the restaurant, Fallon surprised him by transferring the slogan over to the rapper, and they signed the documents right there at the table.

Olive Garden doesn't serve authentic Italian dishes

If you aren't Italian, prepare yourself for a shock: not all Olive Garden's dishes are authentic. Gasp! Anyone who grew up eating Nonna's spaghetti probably clocked this fact at first bite. This is not to say that all of Olive Garden's dishes are phony; The cheese ravioli, for example, is made with homemade meat sauce, and the chicken tortelloni alfredo is baked with a blend of authentic Italian cheeses. But for the most part, Olive Garden's dishes have been Americanized for the non-Italian palate. Tasting Table listed some red flags that indicate an Italian restaurant isn't exactly authentic, and Olive Garden has earned a few. For example, chicken served with pasta isn't as popular in Italian cuisine as Olive Garden would have you believe. Neither are giant meatballs or breadsticks as appetizers.

In 2011, the restaurant even admitted to making up "authentic" Italian dishes completely (via Time). In hindsight, dishes with names like "pastachetti" and "soffatelli" are obviously not traditional Italian fare. Duh. Olive Garden pushed two vaguely Italian-sounding words together and called it a day. The chain has since removed the Franken-Italian pasta dishes from the menu in favor of more familiar offerings, such as ravioli.

You can bring your own wine to some locations

Good news! The bottle of wine you're hiding in your glove compartment can finally come in handy. Being part of the "Olive Garden family" means you can act like your favorite aunt when she stops by your house unannounced: if you pull wine out of your purse and immediately demand food, no one will turn you away. Olive Garden will even provide the glasses. If enjoying a sentimental bottle of wine with your significant other at Olive Garden appeals to you, there are some rules to consider.

Not every Olive Garden location will allow you to bring your wine, so it's best to get the all-clear from the restaurant beforehand. And secondly, bringing your own wine won't save you from paying for it. You'll have to pay a "corkage fee," usually about $7. Keep in mind that Olive Garden allows customers to sample one-ounce portions of wine before charging you for a bottle. So, if all you need is a taste of wine at dinner, sampling may be the best (and cheapest) option. You should also know the best wines to pair with popular pasta dishes so that your vino complements your meal.

Some Olive Garden dishes are extremely high in sodium

Italy has some of the most delicious cuisines in the world. So, naturally, it's packed with carbs, sugar, and calories. And if you struggle with high blood pressure or diabetes, it's important to know that Italian food can also be high in sodium. Olive Garden's Italian/American fusion is no exception. The World Health Organization advises against consuming more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium per day. Dinner at Olive Garden could make sticking to this ideal difficult.

Olive Garden published a breakdown of the nutritional components of each dish, and the sodium levels need to be seen to be believed. The shrimp fritto misto appetizer contains a whopping 5,010 milligrams of sodium. Meatballs parmigiana has 2,800 milligrams of sodium, for example. The entrees, too, are loaded with salt, from the chicken alfredo with crispy chicken fritta (2,670 milligrams) to the chicken tortelloni alfredo (3,720 milligrams).

Thankfully, there are other options for those searching for a sodium-light meal. Spaghetti with meat sauce has 530 milligrams of sodium. The fettucini alfredo is surprisingly low(ish) on sodium at 1,210 milligrams. And at 1,120 milligrams, the shrimp scampi can satisfy your seafood craving without pumping up your sodium intake. Win-win. "Never-Ending Pasta" may appeal to Stregna Nona, but it's simply too much of a good thing for the rest of us.

You can order the soup/salad and breadsticks combo for just $10.49

From the never-ending breadsticks to the Lifetime Pasta Pass, we've come to expect greatness (and a few delicious perks) whenever we stop by Olive Garden. One of the restaurant's most well-known benefits is the never-ending soup/salad and breadsticks combo for $10.49. You can even try a different soup with every refill for no additional cost. This deal might be too good to pass up if your stomach is a bottomless pit. However, you should know all the facts before heading to your nearest Olive Garden.

For one, the never-ending soups, salads, and breadsticks for $10.49 are only available during lunch hours (11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) Monday to Friday. There's another deal where you can order all three to-go for $12.49, but since you wouldn't be eating at the restaurant, they're not never-ending. You can technically take advantage of this deal at other times, but only if you order an entree inside the restaurant. For those ordering the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks option at the restaurant, Reddit urges you to keep one thing in mind: tip your servers well. Not only are they running back and forth to your table to keep replenishing your meals, but the low price often means they get a low tip, too.