Olive Garden is probably not the first choice restaurant for most vegetarians/vegans, but let’s face it – we all wind up there sometime. Someone from your office will throw a birthday party there. Or you’re shopping at Carolina Place Mall with friends and they decide they’d rather eat at Olive Garden than the Food Court. Or your grandma wants to go there for her birthday. And then you’re sitting there with the chain menu in your hand, wondering what you can eat without violating your principles or your healthy lifestyle.
When I first went veg, a dozen or so years ago, Olive Garden was “rumoured” to have chicken broth in all their sauces, and to use only egg noodles. I’m not sure if that was true at the time or just urban legend, but happily today the marinara and pomodoro sauces are indeed vegetarian with no meat broth, and all of the “noodle-type” noodles – spaghetti, fettucine, cappellini, etc. are egg-free.
What Vegetarians Need To Know:
- The Ceaser salad dressing is made with anchovies, and the signature salad dressing is made with eggs and cheese. To be safe, order a separate salad for yourself (minus croutons) and request oil and vinegar for dressing.
- The stuffed mushrooms are made with clams.
- Fried items – like mozzarella sticks, fried zucchini, and french fries – are fried in the same fryers and oils used for meats. In fact, Olive Garden will not guarantee ANY of their foods to be “100%” vegetarian because of the risk of cross-contamination in the kitchen.
- The roasted garlic hummus contains dairy.
If You Are Also Avoiding Eggs:
- Remember, the house salad dressing has eggs and cheese!
- Although the noodle-type noodles are eggless, all the stuffed pastas (tortellini, ravioli) contain eggs.
- The regular cheese pizza does not contain eggs, but the pizza flatbreads do.
- Fettucine Alfredo, fried zucchini, and fried mozzeralla do not contain eggs, but the Eggplant Parmesan does.
- The breadsticks do not contain eggs.
If You Are Avoiding Dairy:
- Here’s where it gets really tricky! Although the marinara and pomodoro sauces do not contain chicken or beef broth, they do contain dairy in the form of butter! (Yes, although the menu says the pomodoro is made with “extra virgin olive oil,” it’s apparently made with “extra virgin olive oil AND butter.” ) The only sauce that does not contain dairy appears to be the plain tomato sauce on the kid’s menu.
- Steamed vegetables, although they SOUND healthy, are also served with seasoned butter.
- In fact, almost every item on the entire menu contains dairy or butter! Even the “vegetarian classic” minestrone soup has butter! You can verify this by going to the Olive Garden website and reviewing the allergan information. There is dairy in just about every menu item listed!
- You CAN, however, request a special order of breadsticks minus the butter and salt topping.
In short, if you are a lacto-vegetarian who doesn’t mind eating a little cheese or butter, you should have several options. If, however, you are vegan, your choices will be extremely limited! Maybe just salad with oil and vinegar, breadsticks without butter, steamed veggies without butter, and spaghetti with plain tomato sauce! There are also grapes on the kids’ menu. Or maybe, depending on the responsiveness and empathy of the waitperson and chef, they could make a plain pasta dish for you with just veggies, garlic, and olive oil. If all else fails, order a glass or two of vegan beer or wine (check out http://www.barnivore.com for brands) and eat when you get home.
Olive Garden does have allergan information on their website (including seafood, eggs, and dairy) which helps to identify and avoid sneaky ingredients in the various dishes. They are also pretty responsive to emails.