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More Cheese, Please

A dubious critic finds comfort food with judgment-free service at Olive Garden.

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When we sat down, our server asked if we wanted a wine tasting. A free wine tasting. Any wine on the menu. Hell yes! After tasting both rosés, a pinot and a white, we each ordered 9-ounce glasses and our generous, friendly dinner at Olive Garden began.

I was skeptical, maybe even a little snarky, about this assignment. And then I remembered middle-school me, with a single mom too busy and broke to cook much more than Swanson TV dinners. I lived for my grandmother's visits and dressing up for the fried shrimp platter at Red Lobster. College me splurged on Taco Bell and hoped my dates could treat me to Ruby Tuesday.

Decades have passed since I enjoyed affordable comfort food in a judgment-free zone stripped of all hipster pretensions. I found a lot to love.

As an information junkie I appreciated that the menu listed calories. Every dish had a suggested wine pairing. And a minitablet and kiosk on the table had a spreadsheet of dishes categorized by common allergens like dairy, shellfish, egg and tree nuts. Our server didn't have to ask the kitchen about anything — low stress for our vegan and food-allergy people.

The wines were mostly grocery store regulars, at $10-$14 a glass. We added the lasagna fritta appetizer ($9.29), which wasn't quite as plump and pretty as the menu photo, but satisfyingly hot and gooey. The lasagna noodles were lightly breaded and fried, served over Alfredo sauce and topped with marinara. And cheese. Plenty of cheese.

The endless salad bowl arrived next, a standard mix of iceberg lettuce and cabbage, grated carrots, flavorless hothouse tomatoes, pepperoncini, black olives and croutons. The famous Olive Garden Italian dressing has some tang, but it's sweeter than the typical chef-made vinaigrette. Don't waste your calories on this.

Save them for the famous breadsticks. Are they actually breadsticks? No. But nobody cares because these are soft, fluffy white flavor bombs of salt, garlic and butter (but somehow no dairy). I wolfed a hot one down before I even realized what I was doing. When I went back later for a cold one to dip in soup, it was nearly as compelling.

This is basic food with entry-level ingredients, reliably executed, built on the core flavor blocks of carbs, salt and cheese. The seafood Alfredo ($17.79) was dotted with small tender shrimp and bay scallops, with just enough creamy cheesy sauce. The angel hair pasta with garden vegetables and marinara sauce ($9.99) had al dente chunks of summer squash, grated carrot, peas, broccoli and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.

The minestrone soup ($5.99) had big crescents of fresh zucchini and pasta shells swimming in a tangy tomato broth. The chicken gnocchi soup ($5.99) was thick and creamy, flecked with spinach.

Our caper-covered salmon piccata ($18.29) was flanked by a tasty side of Parmesan-crusted zucchini slices. No temperatures to order, this fish was a crowd-pleasing, food-safe medium-well.

A few of the dishes needed a dusting of finishing salt, and lo and behold, there was a salt grinder on the table! I haven't seen salt on the table in decades. Independent restaurants should return finishing salt to their diners — a sprinkle wakes up the palate and allows the chef to use less salt in cooking. Far too often when dining out, I have to break out my private stash of purse Maldon.

What pleased me most about Olive Garden was the generous and efficient service. Dinner progressed quickly, without feeling rushed. Our appetizer sat for a sociable few minutes before the soups and salads arrived. The main courses didn't push our unfinished soups and salads off the table.

Our server, Felipe, was a little lax on busing used plates, but made sure our glasses stayed full. And every time he entered the room he scanned our table — it was one of the few dinners in a long time that I haven't had to work to catch a bored or distracted server's eye.

Felipe and our food runner smiled without judgment through every potential annoyance from our group: Can we taste another wine? Can we get more cheese on this? When do the breadsticks come? We need more time to decide on our order. More cheese please? Are the breadsticks vegan? What are the sides (for the fourth time)? Can I have an extra napkin? And keep it coming with the cheese.

Absolutely! Yes! Of course! Anything else?

This was true hospitality. When we asked for seconds on soup, Felipe happily obliged. When we asked to pile on the grated cheese, the food runner kept grating, noting that sometimes she goes through an entire Parmesan chunk for diners. When we asked to box up all the leftovers, Felipe quickly brought a stack of sturdy containers and bags.

There wasn't even a hint of server-splaining, that cringe-worthy moment when the server gently educates you on what you've just done wrong. There is no wrong at Olive Garden. In that way it reminded me of the finest Michelin-level service I've ever experienced: The diner is queen, and we are sincerely delighted to grant her wishes, however misinformed they may be.

Ultimately, four of us were stuffed after multiple courses and drinks — and two bags of to-go boxes — for $130.

I've had better meals, but often worse service. Olive Garden reminded me that what most diners, even foodies like me, want is a friendly night out, and no judgment if they ask for extra cheese or salt.

Olive Garden
7113 W. Broad St.
Mondays - Sundays 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Olivegarden.com

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