Every year, Olive Garden sells tens of thousands of its Never Ending Pasta Pass which promises unlimited free pasta from Olive Garden during the Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion period.
The period is currently running from September 23 through November 24.
This year, the 24,000 Pasta Passes sold out in milliseconds. There was also an extra twist: 50 passholders were given the option to upgrade to a Lifetime Pasta Pass, which entitles holders to unlimited free pasta at Olive Garden for life.
Always the sceptic, I had two questions on my mind: is the pasta really free? And just how unlimited is it?
I headed up to the Olive Garden in Times Square to test it out.
When I sat down, I told my server, Carissa, that I was a Pasta Pass holder. She told me that she gets about five passholders a day, but the restaurant as a whole gets about 150.
The Pasta Pass gets you the Never Ending Pasta Bowl. You choose a pasta, a sauce, and a topping, as well as a soup or salad. Without the Pasta Pass, it would have cost me $US15.99. Many toppings, such as meatballs or shrimp, typically cost extra.
And of course, it comes with free breadsticks.
I chose a side of chicken and dumpling soup. I was surprised that this soup was creamy because traditionally it is not. Oh well, all the better to dip breadsticks with.
I polished off a breadstick and a good portion of my soup before my pasta arrived. Mostly it was salty, creamy, and carby.
I ordered whole wheat linguine with traditional marinara sauce and meatballs. Carissa sprinkled a dash of grated cheese on top.
It was an insane amount of food. I mean, both the soup and the breadsticks are unlimited, and they’re pretty much a full meal. And the main course is a heaping plate of pasta.
I didn’t love the way that the tomato sauce tasted like week-old canned tomatoes. It had a metallic sweetness that fresh tomatoes most definitely don’t.
I know what you’re thinking: Irene, who orders LINGUINE with marinara and meatballs? Linguine is built for alfredo sauce. To that I say: this is Olive Garden and I can do what I want.
The meatballs tasted kind of like spam and canned sausage. They were very mushy and soft and they tasted of neither pork nor beef.
The pasta was honestly the highlight. It didn’t taste like pasta from Italy. Or fresh. But it was at least the right texture, neither too mushy nor too hard.
About halfway through my meal, I paused and asked Carissa if I could order a different pasta combination. Of course! She told me that the Never Ending Pasta promotion is “all about trying different pasta.” It is never-ending, after all.
As long as you eat a reasonable amount of the portions you order, you can continue to order more, then bring home all the leftovers. You could feasibly try every combination of pasta on the Olive Garden menu if you wanted to.
Carissa brought me her favourite pasta combination: angel hair pasta with cheesy marinara sauce and fried shrimp.
The cheesy marinara sauce was a thousand times better than the traditional marinara sauce, because the four cheeses drown out the canned tomato taste and bring some real flavour to the table. Which cheeses are involved remained something of a mystery, however.
The fried shrimp also weren’t bad. They were a step above the meatballs, largely because I couldn’t taste the shrimp inside. They tasted mostly like fried batter.
The angel hair wasn’t great. It was mushy and stuck together, but it was a satisfactory vehicle for the cheese and sauce.
After this meal, I learned to pity the fool that gets spaghetti and meatballs at Olive Garden. The point of Olive Garden isn’t to eat actual Italian or even Italian-American cuisine.
It’s to eat as much cheese, carbs, and fried stuff as possible in one sitting.
At the end of my meal Carissa ran my Pasta Pass and told me I was all set. No receipt? How was I supposed to tip? Cash, she told me. I gave her five bucks because my meal would have cost around twenty. Carissa had made me feel like a VIP. But for me, one Never Ending Pasta Bowl was more than enough for a lifetime.