Whether you consider it the closest to Italy you’re gonna get, or simply classic Americanized comfort food, there’s something for almost everyone at Olive Garden. It’s been bringing families together around its baskets of unlimited breadsticks, family-style bowls of salad, and heaping plates of (mostly salty and creamy) pasta since it first opened 1982 (in Orlando, Florida, we might add). These days, Olive Garden has more than 850 restaurants that continue to draw customers in for its pastas, soups, and more.
No matter what you order at Olive Garden, it’s going to come with a side of their signature salad with Italian dressing. It’s a familiar constant that we all know and love at this point (along with their breadsticks of course, but that’s a whole other story). Back in 2010, an Olive Garden exec told ABC News that more than 150 million bowls of salad were eaten at the restaurant every year, claiming it was "enough for the entire population of the United States to have two servings of salad" each. And that number has likely only climbed since then, as Olive Garden’s popularity has continued to grow in the last decade, as evidenced by the chain’s sales figures (via CNN and FSR Magazine).
So what makes Olive Garden’s salad so delicious? Why do we keep coming back for more? Keep scrolling for all the insight.
Olive Garden’s salad ingredients are fresh
Across the board, the most important component in a good salad has got to be the freshness of the ingredients that go into it. The lettuce, greens, and produce have to be high quality, especially since you’re eating most of it raw. And part of what makes Olive Garden’s salad so good that its recipe has been replicated all over the internet, is that it is full of fresh ingredients.
While Olive Garden workers have confessed that some menu items and ingredients are not fresh, and instead come to the store frozen or prepared, this is not the case with the chain’s signature house salad. An Olive Garden line cook confirmed on Reddit that all the toppings for the salad, including the tomatoes, pepperoncini, and black olives come to the restaurant fresh and are prepared in-house. And those fresh ingredients are kept in tip-top shape, because Olive Garden is said to take food safety and quality very seriously (via employees on Quora). Another Olive Garden employee on Reddit said that food is "checked intensely every hour between the lunch and dinner shift," adding that proper food temperatures and cross contamination protocols are in place.
Olive Garden’s crunchy croutons make for the perfect salad topping
Regardless of the veggie makeup when assembling a salad, the toppings you choose can make all the difference, balancing out the flavors and adding a great textural element when done right. And when it comes to Olive Garden’s salad, those crispy, flavorful croutons on top make all the difference. Chowhound calls them "perfectly crunchy," and diners agree that they have "just the right amount of spices" (via Influenster).
People love these croutons so much, Olive Garden even sells them at major grocery retailers, making them from the same signature recipe used in the restaurants. According to the package, the croutons "are made with Romano cheese, seasoned with garlic, Italian herbs & spices, and baked to delicious golden brown." They are perfect for recreating Olive Garden’s heavenly salad at home, or for just eating straight out of the bag (via Influenster). No judgement here.
Olive Garden’s pepperoncini make all the difference
When you think of a standard house salad at most restaurants, it’s not a very exciting image (or flavor profile) that comes to mind. You get your usual lettuce and tomato, sometimes a cucumber here and there or a few measly carrots shavings. Not so at Olive Garden. Their house salad gets a bright and tangy kick, with the tiniest hint of spiciness, from the addition of wrinkled, yellowish-green chili peppers known as pepperoncini. They add such a great and much-needed balance to the flavor of the salad, helping make it the stand out that it is. In fact, Eater goes as far as to say the salad is the only thing on Olive Garden’s menu "that seems to have any interest in brightness or acidity." Pepperoncini for the win!
And according to some diners, Olive Garden’s pepperoncini are a cut above the rest. One Redditor lamented that they’d been searching for years, with no luck finding "a pepperoncini that can hold a candle to the ones in the OG salad." Though it’s worth noting that one customer on Amazon commented that the Victoria brand’s Imported Greek Pepperoncini are the same ones Olive Garden uses at its restaurants.
Olive Garden’s salad dressing is unbeatable
Yes, fresh ingredients are important. And yes, the toppings make a big difference. But let’s be honest. A salad is really only as good as its dressing. And that’s a big part of what makes Olive Garden’s salad so irresistible. Olive Garden’s Signature Italian Dressing, "crafted from a special blend of Italian spices, oil, and vinegar," has been a customer favorite for more than 35 years, according to the company. A quick peek at the ingredients list shows that it’s also made with eggs and Romano cheese, which helps explain why it’s so deliciously creamy.
Fans seriously love this salad dressing, and would all but slurp it with a straw if given the chance. Long before it was even a thing for restaurants to sell branded products in stores, Olive Garden customers were looking for ways to bring home the chain’s beloved signature dressing. So the company started selling bottles of it directly at the restaurant (via Reddit). Now, along with the signature croutons, you can buy Olive Garden’s Signature Italian Dressing at grocery stores, and on Amazon. And if you’re trying to keep the extra calories at a minimum, Olive Garden also sells a lighter version of their dressing.
Olive Garden’s salad has a whole lot of salt in it
If you’ve ever wondered why some dishes, even ones you can easily make at home, are just better from a restaurant, the answer is probably salt –too much salt, to be specific. Research from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that nearly 85 percent of the dishes at 10 popular chain restaurants, including Olive Garden, are made with more salt than the recommended daily amount for the average adult. And nearly half of the dishes "had two days’ worth of sodium in a single meal."
The reason behind this overload is that salt enriches food flavors. Restaurants are notorious for using an exorbitant amount of salt to make dishes more flavorful, ensuring that customers feel like they are getting the most bang for their buck (via Time). And Olive Garden’s salad is no exception. According to the company, just one serving of the signature house salad with dressing contains a whopping 770 mg of sodium, or about a third of the entire daily intake recommended for an adult by the FDA. That could certainly help explain why the salad tastes too good to be guilt-free — because it’s not!
And if you reach for a breadstick while eating your salad, you’ll be adding another 460 mg of sodium for each one before you even get to other starters or entrees, which pack even more sodium per item than a serving of salad.
You can literally add as much cheese as you want on your Olive Garden salad
Serious question. Is there anything that isn’t made 100 times better by dousing it in fresh cheese? We think not. And this is just another reason why Olive Garden’s salad is so delicious — because you can top with as much freshly grated parmesan cheese as your heart desires.
If you’re bold enough to ask (and sometimes, even if you aren’t), your Olive Garden server just might bring out the block of parmesan cheese with the grater and leave both on the table for you to add to your salad yourself (via Reddit). Otherwise, they could also add as much for you as you want when you first get your salad. This is no joke. There are even internet threads, like this one on Quora, inquiring about just what might happen if you never ask the server to stop (they will literally grate through the whole block for you, and sometimes a second). We say try it out for yourself. You’ve got nothing to lose but more cheese.
Or you can add a protein to your Olive Garden salad and make a meal out of it
While Olive Garden’s salad has plenty of yummy flavor and texture all on its own, it’s not exactly a satisfying meal in and of itself. And it’s probably not supposed to be. The salad is usually there to whet your appetite, and hold you over in heaven while you wait for something like a mountain peak of pasta to arrive. But that’s not to say that you couldn’t turn this delicious salad into a meal with a simple add-on.
If you order the salad as your entree at Olive Garden, you can customize it by ordering a side of protein, like grilled chicken or shrimp, to add on top. Apparently, you can even go all out and ask the restaurant to add some chicken parmesan or Shrimp Fritta to your salad (per Taste of Home). This way, you’ll be saving calories will have more space in your stomach for the thing you really came to Olive Garden for anyways, which was most likely the salad and breadsticks.
Olive Garden salad comes free with your entree
It’s an unspoken truth – most things taste better when they are free. And while that’s certainly not the only reason that Olive Garden’s salad is so delicious, it definitely doesn’t hurt. At Olive Garden, you can get free salad and breadsticks when you order any pasta or entree on the menu. This has been the case since the restaurant opened in 1982, and it’s all part of Olive Garden’s aim to embody "Italian Generosity". And despite the fact that this can be a major cost drain on the restaurant (and one that investors have even taken aim at in the past), Olive Garden has no plans to take away one of the best parts about eating at the chain (via Today Show). Even if you just want to have the salad, it won’t put a strain on your wallet. You can order it by itself for about eight to 10 dollars, depending on your location.
Olive Garden salad is always unlimited
When it comes to Olive Garden’s "Italian Generosity," the word "unlimited" comes to mind, and it’s most associated with their salad (and breadsticks). Whether served up free with your entree, or purchased on their own, Olive Garden’s salad is essentially unlimited, and your server will bring as many salad bowl refills as your heart (and stomach) can handle.
Now here’s the thing. For the most part, diners at Olive Garden don’t go crazy ordering as many salad and breadstick refills as possible, just because they can. But of course, some people do — and some have had to learn the hard way that there are, in fact, a few limits to Olive Garden’s generous deal for those who try and take extra advantage.
For example, some people come to Olive Garden and fill up on salad and breadstick refills, and by the time their meal comes, they’re too full to enjoy it, and so they just take their entree to go. That’s fine, but servers won’t let you order a round of salad and breadstick refills just to take to go, says an Olive Garden employee who spoke to Cosmopolitan. And Reddit is full of horror stories of daring diners consuming unholy amounts of salad and breadsticks and going to great lengths to push the limits — including one group who got caught stashing breadsticks in their purse!
Olive Garden’s salad is the perfect pairing with those warm, buttery breadsticks
At the end of the day, who knows if Olive Garden’s salad would seem as magical if not for its starching sidekick. That’s right, we’re talking about those breadsticks. Soft, fluffy, and shining with butter, the signature breadsticks are the ultimate companion for Olive Garden’s house salad in both flavor and texture.
The crisp, cold veggies, tart banana peppers and tangy dressing in the salad balance perfectly with the warm, pillowy breadsticks, which are dusted with salt and garlic. But it’s more than just the taste. Over the last several decades, this familiar combo has made its way into the hearts and stomach of millions of Americans. Olive Garden’s unlimited salad and breadsticks is a big part of what people identify with the brand, so it’s a familiar and comforting feature at this point. Case in point: According to Olive Garden, the salad has the highest loyalty rating of all the items on the menu (via Fortune).