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Published March 05, 2013, 11:30 PM

Olive Garden one year later: Marilyn Hagerty reviews restaurant that launched her to Internet stardom

GRAND FORKS - The Olive Garden is well into its second year in Grand Forks. Judging from the parking lot and the large number of people usually inside, the restaurant has settled in as one of the busiest.

By: Marilyn Hagerty, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS - The Olive Garden is well into its second year in Grand Forks. Judging from the parking lot and the large number of people usually inside, the restaurant has settled in as one of the busiest.

That’s partly because the food is reasonable and partly because the sprawling Tuscany farmhouse-style restaurant has menus that appeal to all ages.

One year and one day have passed since I wrote my initial Eatbeat review of the Olive Garden on 32nd Avenue South in Grand Forks. That was March 7, 2012, and my world has not been the same. I went viral, and I didn’t even know what that meant.

In the past year, I have learned.

First, there was the online critic who said the review was pathetic. Others followed, wondering why anyone would critique an Olive Garden restaurant. They couldn’t know that I write about truck stops, fast-food places and all kinds of restaurants.

Then, there was a barrage of commentary from kind and gentle people. At one point,

1.3 million hits were reported. There were TV trucks from the “Today” show and “Piers Morgan” in my driveway and national television shows such as Anderson Cooper, Jay Leno and “Top Chef” on the line. And Anthony Bourdain was doing an about-face and praising my work. To top it all off, I received the Al Neuharth Award for excellence in journalism for 2012 that had gone before to the likes of Garrison Keillor and Walter Cronkite.

That is all in the background.

During the past year, I have been auctioned off for charities as a dining companion at the Olive Garden. And recently, I have gone there to write a follow-up.

Lunch, and specifically the soup and salad, are one of the big draws. Last week, I chose minestrone soup made with fresh vegetables, beans and pasta in a tomato broth. It was preceded to the table by a generous bowl of crisp salad with a sharp-tasting dressing. And there were warm breadsticks, freshly baked, in a basket.

All of this for $5.50 is a very good buy. It’s a good buy even at $6.95, which you pay if you get refills. And this lunch item is available until 4 p.m.

Pluses and minuses: The food is predictable, down to the four or five black olives you find in the salad bowl. The vegetable soup is hearty and satisfying. Children are well-treated with color crayons and choices including a little cup of grapes as one of the side dishes.

The two menus, the spiel by the waiter and the commotion of nearby tables made it impossible to understand what was being offered when I went out for dinner last week at the Olive Garden.

So, I ordered the three-course Italian dinner now being featured for $12.95. You start with salad or soup. You have a choice of entrees, and I asked for penne di mare – shrimp and scallops in a seafood cream sauce topped with roasted Parmesan bread crumbs.

The seafood was there, but a little hard to find. There was more pasta than I could eat. The final touch was choice of dessert, and I selected the chocolate mousse cake – which was excellent. Not too sweet, not too rich and topped with a thin layer of chocolate frosting.

No longer a novelty in Grand Forks, the Olive Garden has settled in. It is constantly surrounded by cars and fares well in a restaurant area where there are two new eating places – Noodles & Co. and Erbert & Gerbert’s. These also line up with McDonald’s and the long-established Ground Round on the fringe of Columbia Mall.

Grand Forks’ Olive Garden is one of 800 in a chain that was started by General Mills in Orlando, Fla., in 1982. It became a Darden Restaurant in 1995 and is part of a new trend of co-locating with its sibling Red Lobster restaurants in smaller cities.


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Marilyn Hagerty writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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