Olive Garden is famous for its endless breadsticks, hearty soups, and rich pasta. The family restaurant is a perennial crowd pleaser with a knack for pumping out delectable Italian fare at affordable prices that keeps it relevant even after four decades in business (via Nation’s Restaurant News). And while it’s typically easy to find something on Olive Garden’s extensive menu to suit your taste, you also have some secret options to customize your dining experience.
These secret menu tips and tricks we’ve compiled range from recipe modifications to money-saving hacks and are great tools to deploy if you’ve got dietary restrictions, you’re sticking to a budget, or you just feel like walking on the Garden’s wild side. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, Olive Garden has over 800 locations. So while we can’t guarantee every server or chef across the country will be familiar with each of these hacks, they’re fairly straightforward tweaks that you should be able to sweet talk your way into. Just make sure to mind your P’s and Q’s, and don’t make a scene if one of your requests gets turned down. After all: When you’re there, you’re family.
Gluten free pasta
If you or someone in your party struggles with a gluten aversion or allergy, or even if you’re just hoping to cut back on your intake, don’t fret. Pasta isn’t totally out of the question. Olive Garden offers an entire gluten-sensitive menu, but don’t limit yourself to the basic marinara or meat sauce options you see there. Ask for the gluten-free rotini pasta to be swapped out in any of Olive Garden’s regular pasta dishes, and you’ll never have to miss out on some of the more complex and composed pasta entrees.
According to Olive Garden’s website, the rotini is made from brown rice flour as its primary ingredient, which lends the pasta a nice texture. Not feeling pasta? That’s fine, too. Try something like the grilled chicken parmesan or the herb-grilled salmon. And if you’re hoping to share, Olive Garden offers a comprehensive allergen guide that’ll help you navigate the menu and figure out just what you or your gluten-sensitive dining companions can enjoy together.
Chicken Alfredo Florentine
This dish may sound fancy, but it’s really quite simple. "Florentine" is a shortened version of "a la Florentine" meaning something prepared in the style of Florence, Italy (via Carlsbad Cravings). So what does that mean? Spinach and cheese, more or less. Salmon Florentine, for instance, refers to cooked salmon served with sautéed spinach and a creamy sauce.
If you’re looking to jazz up your Olive Garden Chicken Alfredo dish, ask for Chicken Alfredo Florentine and the server will know to have the kitchen add spinach. This simple secret hack does a few things for the dish. First, it adds a much-needed pop of color with the inclusion of spinach. The sautéed greens also introduce a pop of acidity that helps to offset the creamy, cheesy goodness of Olive Garden’s Alfredo sauce. Just a little bit of spinach can brighten up the whole dish and make you look oh so sophisticated while ordering.
Creamy Minestrone Soup
Olive Garden’s Minestrone soup is already a delightful take on the Italian classic. A mix of fresh seasonal vegetables, beans, and pasta are mixed into the tomato broth base for a vegan-friendly soup that’s sure to satisfy. But if you’re hankering for something a little bit heartier, give your server the old wink and nod and they might just let you customize this dish by thickening it with some of Olive Garden’s mushroom sauce. Typically reserved for pasta, the mushroom sauce will definitely de-veganize the minestrone, but will add a powerful punch of flavor and texture that’s not to be missed.
Give this secret hack a try the next time there’s a chill in the air. We’ve confirmed with our local Olive Garden that — while a bit unusual — there’s nothing in the rule book against thickening up a soup. The added weight and warmth of the savory mushroom sauce will fill you up, keep you warm, and have the line cooks raising their eyebrows in admiration. This person knows what they’re talkin’ about.
Ask five different people what Olive Garden is famous for and you’ll get five different answers. It’s got to be the unlimited breadsticks. No, it’s the pasta. No, it’s the restaurant’s amazing salad dressing. Running through almost every answer, however, is a common thread: Olive Garden sauces. They’re what you dip the breadsticks in, what makes the pasta pop, and what makes the salad dressing sing. So don’t limit yourself. Get creative with your choice of sauce the next time you go to the Garden.
Try, for instance, ordering a side of mushroom sauce to dip your breadsticks in. Ask for some extra dressing on your endless salad. There’s really no bad combination when it comes to dipping seasoned carbs into a hot sauce, so go wild.
One especially pro move? Don’t commit to an all tomato or all cream-based pasta sauce. After all, life’s too short. Instead, ask your server to go half and half on the sauces, creating a marinara-meets-cheese delight that’s thicker and creamier than your normal red sauce, but lighter and brighter than the gut bomb of a heavy Alfredo. And, if you’re one of those types that just can’t get their fill, Olive Garden’s catering branch also sells sauce by the pint. Take some home and demolish those bad boys at will. We confirmed with our local Olive Garden branch that mix-and-match sauces are an option, so don’t be shy!
Keep it (relatively) healthy
We know, we know. If you’re counting your calories or are not looking to be so full you feel nauseous, a trip to Olive Garden might not exactly be at the top of the list. But, sometimes you want those breadsticks, or you’ve got friends who are ready to indulge and you’re along for the ride. If that’s the case, try hacking Olive Garden’s menu with simple yet effective calorie reduction strategies that your server will be happy to accommodate.
Try, for instance, any of the pasta dishes… but without the pasta. That’s right. Poke around the menu and identify some veggies you’d like as a base for your dish, then make a clean swap. So instead of a chicken parm over fettuccine noodles, you can try it over a bed of broccoli, spinach, or mushrooms. For extra health points, get the grilled chicken parm without the breading.
You can also forego some of the heavier sauces or dressing, instead opting for a simple olive oil to accompany your salad. Even though you’ve got the option to crush a basket of breadsticks guilt-free, there are clever ways to make the Olive Garden menu a little lighter and less so-heavy-you-may-puke.
Italian soda is a secret menu item that you might have to gently explain to your server, but it should be achieved easily enough at any Olive Garden location that stocks flavored syrups or purees for its coffee or cocktail programs. Italian soda is an old-school treat and one that’s sure to delight anybody who is not in the mood for boozin’ or is simply too young to partake. Ask your server what kind of flavored syrups they have handy, then have them add an ounce or two to a tall glass of club soda. Garnish with whatever you see fit. A raspberry soda, for instance, might go well with lime.
If you want to get really traditional with it, build an Italian cream soda by asking for vanilla syrup and then adding a bit of half and half on top. Just make sure to mix it well!
Chicken Parmigiana Alfredo
A classic conundrum often rears its head when you sit down with an Olive Garden menu. On the one hand, you’ve got Olive Garden’s take on the classic chicken Alfredo dish. On the other, you’ve got your chicken Parmigiana. How does one decide? Why sacrifice the delicious, crunchy combination of a breaded chicken cutlet and robust marinara for the delicious — but admittedly one note — chicken Alfredo? (Then again, that creamy cheese sauce is to die for.)
Well, today’s your lucky day. Rather than pigeonhole yourself into a single dish, ask your server for the fettuccine Alfredo pasta dish with the chicken Parmigiana on top. It shouldn’t incur an extra charge, as the chicken Parmigiana already includes pasta. It’s just a little extra sauce so you don’t have to choose between the decadence of the Alfredo sauce and the bright, classic flavors of well-executed chicken parm. This is the sort of brilliant power play that’ll have your dining companions talking about you for years to come.
Do the donuts right with dipping sauces
Olive Garden’s warm Italian doughnuts are the restaurant chain’s take on zeppole, a classic Italian dessert of fried dough coated in sugar that is sometimes — but not always — stuffed (via Simply Homecooked). Olive Garden’s doughnuts are not stuffed, but instead baked into rectangles and tossed in vanilla sugar. The resulting treat are bite size, dippable delights. And while each order comes with chocolate and/or raspberry dipping sauce, that doesn’t mean those are your only options.
Cruise through the rest of the dessert offerings to see what else might lay in store. If there’s a strawberry cheesecake dessert, for instance, you can ask for a side of the strawberry syrup drizzle to accompany your doughnuts. Or more seasonal selections like autumnal or winter desserts often feature caramel dipping sauces that pair nicely with the donuts. Get creative and get curious: It can’t hurt to ask!
Build your own pasta
With as much unofficial customization as the beloved Italian chain invites, it’s no surprise Olive Garden has started offering a more sanctioned build-your-own pasta option. While not technically a "secret," it’s good to know about and consider as you dive into the behemoth that is the classic restaurant’s menu.
Customize your pasta by working from the base up. First, choose between options like rigatoni, angel hair, spaghetti, or gluten-free rotini. Then choose from one of Olive Garden’s famous sauces, like the creamy mushroom or five cheese marinara. From here, it’s really anybody’s ballgame. Keep things simple with just a single protein, or load up on meat, fish, or veggies until you’ve achieved the perfect combo. Just make sure not to fill up on the endless breadsticks before your masterpiece shows up on the table. More than one eager pasta artist has made that mistake — not fun.
Order takeout from the kid’s menu
All right, it’s possible this isn’t the most ethical menu hack in the world. But if you’re looking to count calories and save a few bucks, you can skirt Olive’s Garden rules by ordering takeout from the kids’ menu. After all, the restaurant doesn’t know whether you’ve got little tykes at home. Simple pasta-and-sauce dishes clock in under $10 and come with a side, so you can mix and match your options without breaking the bank. They’ve also got some nostalgic favorites like chicken tenders and mac and cheese, so if you’re ready to indulge your inner child, it might be time to hit the Garden for takeout.
If this brand of rule-bending just isn’t your speed, that’s okay, too — Olive Garden offers smaller and less expensive portions of its regular menu for both dine-in and takeout at lunch. While this might not help you out at dinner time, you can get your Olive Garden fix during daylight hours with a clean conscience.
Save money by dining in and taking out
If you’re having dinner at Olive Garden, why not plan for the next day and order an entrée to go, too? Any diner who purchases an entree at Olive Garden is eligible to add a freshly prepared and then refrigerated entree to go, too. The best part? Your takeaway entree is only $6. The $6 Entrée Take Home program is available at select locations and limits each guest to a generous five takeaway meals for every in-house entree they purchase. That means you could go out to dinner Sunday night and, for an extra $30, walk away with dinners for the entire work week. Not bad.
Though you don’t have your selection of the entire menu, you can choose from Fettuccine Alfredo, Five Cheese Ziti Al Forno, and spaghetti with meat sauce. A pretty good way to get the most bang for your buck!
Take advantage of the wine program
Olive Garden allows diners to sample any of the wines by the glass for free, so you don’t have to commit to a full glass until you’re certain you’re going to enjoy it. The company also allows the purchase of full bottles for takeaway and to-go orders, with entire 750-milliliter bottles starting below $20. The best part? If you’ve got a bottle that’s been kicking around your wine fridge that you’d like to bring, some locations allow you to open your own wine for a nominal corkage fee of just $7 (via Foodly).
Of course, this isn’t license to get a box of Franzia and go buck wild at your local Olive Garden. But it’s a good way to save a few bucks, sample some wines, and find that perfect red to pair with your hearty pasta or a crisp white to go with your fish. Make sure to consult Olive Garden’s website or give your local chain a call before you show up with a bottle in hand; it’s only legal at select locations.
Up your breadstick game
According to Reader’s Digest, there are certain rules that servers live by at Olive Garden that aren’t advertised to the general public. First, servers are supposed to bring a specific number of breadsticks in that first, long-awaited basket. That number? However many people are in your party plus one. So if you sit down to dine as a four-top, you can expect the first basket to hold five breadsticks.
Well, that just will not do, of course. So you ask for a refill. Except, apparently the servers are also supposed to refrain from serving a second helping of breadsticks until after the party has ordered. So go ahead, throw in that first appetizer to get the ball rolling and the breadsticks flowing. Of course, manners are the name of the game here. Be upfront with your server and let them know you’re privy to the rules and aren’t looking to cause any trouble — but that you’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more breadsticks.
If you’re polite and tip properly, the server will likely keep the breadsticks flowing as long as you want. Just remember to buy other stuff, too. Like, you know, dinner.