by Lauren McAllister

A few years back, the entire Olive Garden chain was infused with true Italian culture when the corporation bought a culinary school and restaurant in Tuscany. Some staff members get to go there each year for special training, which must certainly help with recruitment. It also seems to have helped the menu, which previously had relied mainly on such classics as lasagna and ravioli. Now you can discover the kinds of items you might find at a small, family-owned restaurant tucked away in an Italian village. Along with the updated menu came a new, more rustic interior design and a new emphasis on wine.

Spokane's Olive Garden has walls finished to look like stucco, with strings of white lights criss-crossing the main dining room adding a festive, garden-like atmosphere. There is ample natural light through the wall of windows.

For an early dinner on a recent Sunday, my companion and I were surprised to find the dining room fairly bustling. The Olive Garden does not take reservations, and you can usually expect to sit and wait if you arrive at dinnertime; but in the late afternoon, we were seated immediately.

Entrees at the Olive Garden all include a choice of soup or salad. The restaurant's all-you-can eat soup and salad lunch has long been a favorite of mine. The zuppa toscana, with spicy sausage, russet potatoes and cavolo greens -- sort of a mild version of kale -- is outstanding.

My companion and I both opted for the salad on this day. It arrived in a hokey big plastic bowl with the salad fork and spoon hooked together like some kind of freakish set of tongs. In theory, this salad should not be that great. It is mainly iceberg lettuce with a few carrot and red cabbage slivers, a bit of red onion, some black olives and big, old-fashioned salty croutons. The dressing is the house Italian. However, as a bicycle, in theory, shouldn't work but does, so, too, does the Olive Garden's salad. We loved it. We ate plateful after plateful from the big bowl. We exclaimed over the soft white bread sticks. Then we ate some more salad. The pepperoncini had me vowing to buy a jar for my own home. The lettuce was crisp and cold, the red onions thinly sliced so as not to overwhelm, the dressing perfectly applied.

Our delight continued into the antipasti course. The San Remo seafood dip ($7) was a blend of crab, shrimp and cheese with a small amount of chunky tomato marinara baked in a little cassoulet dish. Around it was a ring of thinly sliced "Tuscan" bread. The bread was no different in texture from the breadsticks, but had a poppyseed crust. The dip was rich and wonderful, combining the gentle seafood and cheese flavors with the more robust marinara in just the right proportions. Soon this platter, too, was but a memory.

The menu is marked with a number of specialties that have grown out of the new culinary school in Italy. The chicken vino bianco, with pan-seared chicken breasts, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and garlic in a white wine butter sauce ($11.50) sounded tempting, as did the pork filettino, a grilled pork tenderloin marinated in olive oil and rosemary and served with roasted potatoes ($14). The penne romana (fresh green beans, tomatoes and penne in a white wine herb sauce) also was appealing. Our server's favorite was the garlic-herb chicken con broccoli ($11.50). My companion opted for the tortelloni di Fizzano ($10.75). This was a nice-sized bowl of big, fat tortellini filled with a ricotta cheese-and-spinach mixture, in a creamy beef and pork bolognese sauce. It had an appealingly rustic quality, with the pasta perhaps a bit past al dente but nonetheless tasty.

After briefly toying with the chicken marsala ($13), I opted for the flashiest item on the menu, the lobster spaghetti ($18), also a specialty, which our server said she had never tasted. Too bad for her because this dish is a winner. The lobster morsels were tender and delicately flavored, and the generous amount of creamy lobster broth sauce over the plump spaghetti was delectable. The fresh spinach tossed into the mix added a fresh, springy taste and lots of color.

We opted for the tira misu ($4.75) for dessert. It was creamy and rich but seemed a bit pre-fabricated, perhaps out of some kind of Olive Garden, Inc., box.

Service at the Garden was pleasant, although our server could have demonstrated a better knowledge of the menu. And there was a long wait after our appetizer for our entrees. Still, our iced teas were frequently refilled with both ice (it's not iced tea without more ice!) and tea, and used dishes were quickly cleared from the table. At the beginning of our meal, we were offered samples of a featured wine. While that day's selection didn't conjure up Tuscany for us, it was a fun way to begin our dinner.

All in all, the Olive Garden provides food that is well above average for a chain restaurant. While spaghetti with meat sauce and lasagna still have places on the menu, there are many worthy options for more adventurous diners as well.

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