Every Olive Garden Appetizer, Ranked

Here's what Olive Garden's appetizer menu gets right, and what it gets wrong.

I'll be straight up: I'm not a fan of Olive Garden. You can easily find better pasta for a similar price elsewhere. Here in Los Angeles, chicken Alfredo at Olive Garden costs $20.99. Chicken Parmigiana costs $20.79. Lasagna is $19.79. Those prices are oddly similar to comparable dishes at our local restaurants. Ceci's Gastronomia sells its handmade meat lasagna for only $17. The pasta at Uovo, which is handmade in Italy, costs $18. Chicken parm in Los Angeles is actually pretty expensive, ranging from $24-$30, but it's an easy choice to fork out an extra five bucks for something less mass-produced.

Still, something has compelled me to visit this longstanding house of breadsticks, which first opened in 1982. Maybe it's the murmurs that chain restaurants are back, or that the O.G. passed $5 billion in sales on a trailing 52-week basis for the first time ever in 2023. For whatever reason—convenience, supposed quality, and perceived low prices—people are frequenting Olive Garden more than they ever have before.

Though people are flocking to the never-ending pasta bowl, Olive Garden is also well-known for its appetizers. And if you go to Olive Garden, you should be getting appetizers. Chances are you're not there alone—it is decidedly a place for groups, and that means sharing. From artichoke spinach dip to fried shrimp, Olive Garden has a diverse catalog of Italian-American/chain restaurant hits. Here's how all nine appetizers rank, from worst to best.

9. Fried Calamari

Far and away, this is some of the worst fried calamari being served on the planet. But let's study why it's so bad.

The calamari at Olive Garden undercooked, rubbery, and overseasoned. The salt levels here are just way too high (a nagging problem with a lot of chain restaurants), concentrated in the breading. There's also a snap to this calamari that I found alarming. I can't say that I've had squid this springy before. Worst of all, this calamari doesn't come with any of the fried tentacles. Juicy, crispy tentacles doused with lemon juice and dipped in marinara are the best part of any calamari order, and Olive Garden just doesn't have them.

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Each order of calamari comes with marinara and spicy ranch. While I'm a huge proponent of ranch dressing, using it as a dipping sauce for calamari feels like an insult. Olive Garden doesn't care too much about its calamari, and neither should you.

8. Spinach-Artichoke Dip

This is some of the most bland, basic spinach artichoke dip you'll ever have. The main problem is that it's just not any fun. This type of dip is best when it takes chances, experimenting with ingredients like Pecorino or Gruyere. Olive Garden's version, however, barely tastes like cheese at all. It's merely a seasoned, industrial béchamel combined with flavor-sapped spinach that has a weird flavor to it, the whole app devoid of richness. Even the flatbread lacks crunch and personality. Spinach artichoke dip is one of the most fun and crowd-pleasing appetizers out there, but this interpretation feels like an AI approximation.

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7. Fried Mozzarella

The fried mozzarella rectangles at Olive Garden commit the cardinal sin of being soft and limp. While you do get an awesome cheese pull, the cheese is exceptionally bland and tastes vaguely of plastic. The breading here, as with the calamari, is oversalted, and the overall dish is undercooked. Many of Olive Garden's appetizers simply need to be fried longer. It could be the specific location I visited, but surely every fryer is on a timer; restaurants like this have to be operate mechanically to be successful. So what gives? Some Olive Garden appetizers arrive perfectly crunchy and crispy. Not the fried mozzarella, though. Stay away. I'd rather be at TGI Fridays.

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6. Meatballs Parmigiana

These meatballs are bouncy, watery, and salty. There's no tenderness and no real textural interest. Meatballs should be somewhat loose, and these are instead firm, squishy, and homogenous. The flavor is solid—good salt and adequate seasoning—but they just don't taste that much like beef, and biting into one is a tad squeaky. In short, these came from a freezer.

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The meatballs come Parmigiana style, so they're baked with red sauce, Italian cheese like mozzarella and Parmesan, and topped with breadcrumbs. The mixture of sauce and cheese is flavorful, but that doesn't change the fact that these are freezer aisle meatballs through and through. That can be fine, but at an Italian restaurant, you've got to do better.

5. Shrimp Fritto Misto

The Shrimp Fritto Misto platter is massive. It contains at least two dozen shrimp, equaling a half pound, and they're surprisingly plump and flavorful. I was on the prowl for coarse, mealy shrimp to criticize, but I actually didn't find it. Just about all shrimp these days come frozen, so I'm not at all deterred by Olive Garden's.

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For some reason, Olive Garden insists on pairing a wide array of foods with ranch dressing, and that's a mistake here. There is also marinara offered on the side, but it just doesn't make any sense. These fried shrimp need cocktail sauce, or maybe even some tartar. The dipping sauces are a real drawback here. Marinara and fried shrimp don't jive well, so squeeze a lemon over the whole thing and hope for the best. Still, a really good price for the sheer volume of shrimp here.

4. Lasagna Fritta

This is a parmesan-breaded lasagna that's deep fried, and it's got some redeeming qualities to it. A lot of Olive Garden's failings can be summed up by the words "limp" and "undercooked," but the lasagna fritta was delightfully crispy and crunchy, and the interior is filled with smooth, creamy ricotta. There's real nice variation in textures here. The way this plate is constructed is noisy and excessive—but hey, it's Olive Garden. The lasagna fritta come served on a bed of creamy alfredo and topped with meat sauce. It's so much damn sauce, but not quite as excessive as the photo makes it look. I think of these like little mini fried Italian chimichangas. It's not a perfect dish, but it's nice to see Olive Garden leaning into something fun. The food is always best when it does that.

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3. Toasted Ravioli

Olive Garden's Toasted Ravioli are good for the same reason its Calamari and its Fried Mozzarella are bad: texture and frying time. The consistency here is just great—super puffy, crunchy, and delightfully coarse. These ravioli, though I'm sure they were dropped off by a giant semi-truck in frozen cases, really do feel homemade. Also, strangely, they're filled with beef; I've only ever eaten toasted ravioli made with ricotta, so the beef was an added attraction. Shoot, you could even pair these bad boys with some Alfredo sauce and you won't be sorry. You can do a lot worse at Olive Garden than the Toasted Ravioli.

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2. Stuffed Ziti Fritta

The Stuffed Ziti Fritta are the most fun item on Olive Garden's appetizer menu. These are essentially crispy fried ziti stuffed with five cheeses, served with marinara and Alfredo for dipping. Outwardly, they kind of look like Totino's pizza rolls—they definitely have the aesthetic of stoner food, something a teenager rips open and microwaves after failing a math test at school. The outside is crispy, and the middle of each piece is cheesy and decadent. This is the type of modern, anti-establishment cooking that you'd see at a fun pop-up somewhere in Los Angeles. I love them.

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1. Breadsticks with Dipping Sauces

The best appetizer at Olive Garden was always going to be the breadsticks. And while they're very good, I also think Olive Garden probably gets too much credit for them. Why? Because every iteration of frozen garlic bread is good. One of my favorites is actually Walmart's soft and crunchy Great Value garlic bread, which costs next to nothing and is full of deliciously rich butter flavor.

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So these soft, buttery, garlicky little pillars of bread hold up strong—but the real move at Olive Garden is to add sauces. When you order the dipping sauces with your breadsticks, you get marinara, Alfredo sauce, meat sauce, and five cheese marinara. Dipping warm breadsticks into a pool of rich Alfredo sauce is heavenly, and I actually think Olive Garden's marinara deserves a bit more credit than it gets. The red sauce is seasoned to mathematical precision, and it's been reduced and cooked down to the ideal degree, resulting in compacted flavor. No, the sauce isn't made from the best quality tomatoes, but I've had worse red sauce, that's for sure.

At Olive Garden, the servers just keep bringing out breadsticks whether you want them or not. That's a rather antiquated way of dining, and many people now think that all-you-can-eat bread before a meal is somewhat wasteful. Still, the breadsticks at Olive Garden are delicious, and definitely make a case that bread as an appetizer still has some value yet.

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