- In February, Olive Garden introduced several new strange menu items.
- One was the “meatball pizza bowl,” which is somehow, sadly, exactly what it sounds like.
- It was the worst menu item we tried in all of 2018.
As a photo editor and an unofficial BI Retail food taster, I ate – and photographed, of course – a lot of food this year. Some of it was memorable; most of it wasn’t. Not everything can stand out next to the Texan glory of Torchy’s tacos or the patty melts of Whataburger, or the guiltily good french fries from Taco Bell.
But some special items stand out among the madding crowd not for reasons of deliciousness or admiration, but instead for rather unfortunate reasons. And chief among those unlucky few this year is Olive Garden’s “meatball pizza bowl,” released in February as part of the chain’s new lunch combos.
On paper alone it sounded like an unorthodox amalgam of Italian-American cuisine: a pizza crust that’s moulded into the shape of a bowl, then filled with alternating layers of ragu sauce, cheese, and meatballs. In what dimension does this food exist? Is it a pizza? A bowl? Some other insane shape that betrays all rules of Euclidean geometry and has mozzarella cheese, to boot?
Indeed, it sounded eccentric to say the least – but I was game, especially after the surprise success of Olive Garden’s other heretical new offering, the “Italian nachos.” If something that earth-shatteringly strange could in fact, be good, then all bets were off.
Yet my optimism was unfounded.
It looked exactly as it did in the promo photos – which was almost suspicious, given the usual extreme inconsistency. It was a vaguely five-pointed bowl of undulating pizza crust, singed in the valleys and bulbous at the peaks. It was roughly the size of a baseball cap, with all the looks of a doughy, saucy tricorne hat. It did smell good, however – like a meatball sub, fresh out of the oven.
The crust was spongy and thick. Too thick for a normal pizza crust, but structurally, it made sense in order to keep the vat of ragu and cheese at bay.
The meatballs were tiny, reminiscent of the rubbery little beef orbs that come in cans of Spaghetti-O’s. It’s concerning that I think the Spaghetti-O meatballs were better than these – what this says about my taste versus the taste (or lack thereof) of these meatballs is up for debate.
Perhaps most vexing about this schismatic dish was its sheer structural inefficiency. Are you just supposed to eat the ragu and meatball stew within it first, then chomp away at the now-empty crust bowl? That doesn’t make any sense – one must enjoy bread with such a meal, not afterwards. And what fun is there in just eating flavourless meatballs swimming in a ragu made of even more meat? That’s just meat on meat.
Eating this becomes an exercise in willpower. How long must one stay the course – is there an exit strategy? Or are you doomed to slowly chew on this bolognese boondoggle in its entirety until you are saturated in a meaty malaise that may turn you off ragu for months?
I give credit to Olive Garden for trying something… we’ll say,innovative. And sometimes these moonshots are successful; their Italian nachos were delicious. But this meatball bowl was a definite gutter ball – easily the least enjoyable thing we ate this year.
- Read more in our Retailer of the Year series:
- These are the brands that blew up in 2018
- Abercrombie removed its shirtless models and turned up the lights in stores, leading to the biggest retail comeback of the year
- We visited dozens of stores this year, and these were the messiest by far
- We visited a lot of department stores in 2018. Here’s which one was the best to shop at.
- We compared the grocery-shopping experience at 6 major chains in 2018, and this one impressed us the most
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