Side: Salad with Italian Dressing
“Ah, I see, needed a break. Well, your order will be ready in 15 minutes.”
“Good to see you too.”
Pasta: Cavatappi with Alfredo Sauce
Side: Salad with Italian Dressing
They say absence from Olive Garden makes the heart grow fonder. Or healthier. I forget. Probably both. In any case, it’s been awhile. A week and a half, in fact, since I’ve used my Pasta Pass. I’ve been busy working on non-pasta based writing projects. But people are clamoring for more pasta posts. Okay, not really, but still. Gotta give the people what they want.
So Friday night, while everyone else was out having fun, going to Halloween parties, being a normal weekend-enjoying human, I was ordering take-out for one from Olive Garden. I looked at the menu and decided to get Cavatappi, the only pasta I had yet to try. But before that came the important step of Googling “wtf is cavatappi.” I saw that it was spiral shaped pasta and looked kind of whimsical and fun. I was eating Olive Garden by myself on a Friday, I’ll take whatever fun I can get.
For pasta sauce, I got alfredo. It had been a long week, I deserved something rich and creamy and decadent. For my side order, I got salad, just to balance out the decadence with some vegetables. My order decided, I looked at my Olive Garden fridge magnet (Pasta Pass affords you such things) which had the phone number for the Glendale location. No, I do not have it on speed dial, and no, I do not have it memorized. Soon.
“Hi, thank you for calling Olive Garden. This is Stacey, how can I help you?”
It was Stacey, the Olive Garden server who I had seen nightly and formed a nice rapport with. We had a good thing going for awhile, seeing each other every night. Bantering about all the pasta I was eating, talking about other people with a Pasta Pass. She even met my mom.
But I hadn’t seen her in a couple weeks. I started eating at different times, often getting lunch instead of dinner, and for the past week and a half, not even going at all. I hoped it wouldn’t be awkward.
“Thomas? Hey! I haven’t seen you in awhile…”
I wanted to tell her that I got swamped with work. That I had to focus on other writing projects. That I went into a medically-induced pasta coma and just woke up. That I just needed some space. It’s not you, it’s me.
“Yeah, I’ve been busy. I needed a break.”
“Ah, I see, needed a break. Well, your order will be ready in 15 minutes.”
She could see through my bullshit. She sees right through me, Stacey. She knows me too well. You weren’t busy asshole, you just didn’t want to come. And it’s true. I can always get take out from Olive Garden, nobody’s too busy for that. I just didn’t want to.
I pulled into the garage and parked in my usual spot. The 10 minute take-out-only spot. It was always empty. I bet only other Pasta Passers park there. Who gets take-out from BJ’s or Islands or Olive Garden? The only reason you go to these places is to share huge plates of food with other people who also want a brownie the size of a pizza.
I walked in, got my ticket validated, and sat at the bar. I saw Stacey walk toward me with my huge Nordstrom bag of food. She had the same cheery smile, but her hair was different. When did she get her hair done? Had it been that long? I wondered what else I missed in the last week and a half. She handed me my food.
“Hi Thomas! Good to see you again.”
“Good to see you too.”
It really was good to see her. And I was actually excited to eat this weird spiral pasta slathered in kinda gross alfredo sauce. I got home and quickly started my Friday night feast. In the 5 minutes it took to get back to Atwater, it was already lukewarm. Oh how I’ve missed you, Olive Garden.
I don’t know if it was the pasta hiatus or it was the long week I had or if the kitchen was just on their game that night, but the cavatappi was good! It was cooked well, not overdone like the usual Pasta Bowl pasta, and there was a good amount of alfredo sauce which was, of course, pretty salty, but sort of all worked. I could see myself pairing it with a nice box of wine.
The salad was good as always. The other night, I saw that they sell Olive Garden Italian Dressing at Ralphs and I would totally buy it if I didn’t already have an unlimited supply. The breadsticks were reliably awful, but I was digging the pasta so much that I almost finished an entire breadstick! Almost.
It was exactly what I needed. I got to see my old friend Stacey, try cavatappi for the first time, and eat a refreshing salad. Will I get sick of Olive Garden again? Of course. Am I already sick of it? Highly likely. But, I went to bed with a pasta coma. Not bad for a Friday night.
Pasta: Spicy Three Meat Spaghetti with Italian Sausage
Side: Zuppa Toscana Soup
It was 10am and I was sipping on the finest Pacific Roast Kirkland has to offer when I saw that I had a new comment on my blog. It was a producer from NPR asking if I wanted to be interviewed for Weekend Edition Sunday. Still half-asleep, I replied: sure, why not.
A day later, I was at a voiceover studio in Burbank. I was impressed. I thought they'd just get me on a landline, but shelling out the dough for studio time? This was legit. I walked inside where a mousy receptionist greeted me and told me to take a seat in the waiting area. On the wall were hundreds of framed pictures of celebrities who had come in to record.
Morgan Freeman. Martin Short. Denis Leary. Voices you hear in countless movies and TV shows and commercials. And now, I was there to talk about Olive Garden.
The engineer came and led me into the recording studio. He asked what I was here for and I said I was getting interviewed about the Pasta Pass. "The what?" I explained the specifics. Seven weeks of pasta. Hundred bucks. And now, an interview with NPR. "Wow... alright." Wow, alright indeed.
I sat in the recording booth and put on my head phones. After a few minutes, the NPR producer called in from Washington DC. She asked me to introduce myself. “My name is Thomas Reyes, I’m from Los Angeles, and I’m a TV writer.”
She asked some basic questions… why I got the Pasta Pass. What my friends think. How I felt after 2 weeks of Pasta Pass. I told her I felt sluggish after the first few days, but I balanced it out with somewhat healthy food and exercise. Said my friends were fascinated by it, and wanted to go with me to different Olive Gardens. That I got the pass on a lark, a fun little experience I could write about.
Then she got to the juicy stuff. The stuff that might get me in trouble. “What do you think of the food? Do you even like Olive Garden?” I was honest. No, I didn’t like the food very much. A few things were decent. The Spicy Three Meat Sauce. I liked the salad. Some of the soups. But for the most part, I’m not a fan.
“Would you go back after the Pasta Pass is over? Would you eat at Olive Garden?” I thought about it for a second… “No. I’ll need a break. Maybe in another ten years.” The producer laughed. I immediately regretted saying it, but I had been eating pasta for the past two weeks, what else was I going to say? My love for Olive Garden has only gotten stronger?
I walked out of the interview feeling bad. Was I too harsh? Too negative? I wondered if Olive Garden superfans would hear the interview and attack me. Wondered if my Pasta Pass would be revoked, if my Minestrone would be spit in, if I would now get one breadstick instead of two.
The piece wouldn’t air for a couple days so I needed to take my mind off things. Some friends had just bought a new house in Atwater Village so I went over and helped them paint their living room. As a little housewarming present, I brought over (what else) Spicy Three Meat Spaghetti with Italian Sausage and Zuppa Toscana.
I already knew what the Spicy Three Meat Spaghetti tasted like, so I thought it’d be good to get their perspective. They also hadn’t eaten at Olive Garden in over a decade (having last gone when we got drunk there in high school). They liked the sauce, and spaghetti was fine, but they noticed that the flavor had a distinctly familiar blandness to it. Like it could’ve been pasta from IHOP or Denny’s.
We all agreed that the sausage was bad. It was super plain yet incredibly salty. Tough to chew. Then they tried the breadsticks, something that we all remember loving… and they agreed, the breadsticks are awful. They were dense, dry, incredibly salty, and were hardly even cooked, basically raw. “I can't believe we liked these. Maybe we didn’t know any better.”
Next came the soup, Zuppa Toscana. It was creamy, with potatoes, spinach, and bits of meatball. It wasn’t bad! The potatoes disintegrated on the 5 minute trip from Glendale to Atwater, but on the whole, I would eat the soup again.
After eating the bland pasta, gross breadsticks, and decent soup, I asked my friends if they could do something like the Pasta Pass. “No way. Maybe for a couple days, max. I already feel kinda gross.”
After dinner, we put on some Tupac and painted the shit out of their living room. The shade of green we used was called “Rejuvenate.” It was fitting. Getting their opinion put me at ease. The next morning, I went to the NPR website and listened to the interview. My 20 minutes had been whittled down to 3 but the piece was funny and breezy and Ari Shapiro was reading my writing on National Public Radio.
Pasta: Angel Hair with Meat Sauce
Side: Chicken and Gnocchi Soup
I woke up to the sound of a text message. It was my mom. “Are we going Olive Garden for lunch?” I thought she was being sarcastic. Ever since she came to terms with me being a comedy writer, she had been telling more jokes.
Her unintentional material worked better, like when she texted “do you like Hamas?” Because she was “at the Farmers Market and there’s lots of Hamas.”
So I ignored it and went back to sleep. Vbbbbbbbb… Vbbbbbbbbbb. Now my mom was calling. She really did want to have to lunch at Olive Garden. Fuck.
I felt gross. The previous night was spent at Max Karaoke for a friend’s birthday, but I wasn’t hungover. I was sick. I’m not going to blame Olive Garden. This isn’t a Super Size Me situation, I know who got me sick. That said, Spicy Three Meat Linguine doesn’t exactly have a lot of vitamins in it either. Just saying.
I needed fresh air. Being cooped up in my apartment would just make my cold feel worse. I rolled out of bed, got in my mom’s aging SUV, and headed to downtown Glendale.
It was my first time having lunch at Olive Garden. It was packed. The weekend crowd. People looking like they just came from church, dressed to the nines. And then there’s me, wearing the same clothes I slept in, worn out flip flops, and severe bed head. I was taking the “practically living at Olive Garden” aspect of the Pasta Pass to it’s logical conclusion.
They seated us in a brightly lit section I hadn’t seen before. It had huge windows with a view of busy Brand Boulevard. It was also right next to several tables filled with noisy kids.
My mom, a preschool teacher, shook her head and whispered “I’m around kids every day, I don’t want to see them on the weekend.” I laughed and hoped she would ask if they had any Hamas.
We met our server, Brad. He was friendly, but it was 11:30am, too early for small talk. He noticed I was updating my mom’s iPhone. “Oh gosh, another update? Come on, Apple! Enough with the updates, amirite?” “Heh. Yeah.”
I told Brad upfront that I had a Pasta Pass. He asked to see it, along with my Drivers License, and took both to his manager. I wondered if too many people had tried borrowing their friend’s passes. After five minutes, Brad returned. “Welcome back, Thomas.”
Normally, I’d be excited for fellow Olive Gardener to know my name, but all I wanted was some soup to wake me up and clear the sinuses. I got the Chicken with Gnocchi and my mom got salad. For my main dish, I went with Angel Hair and Meat Sauce. My mom got Herb Crusted Salmon. I was immediately jealous.
If Olive Garden were ever to do this promotion again, I wish they’d allow for some leeway on what to eat. There are so many non-bowl-of-pasta things I see on the menu that I’m curious about and, who knows, I might enjoy and continue eating after this experiment ends. And yes, they advertise the “150 possible combinations” of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, but still. Salmon would be nice.
My mom’s gigantic salad came and we split it as usual. The soup was okay, creamy and somewhat flavorful, but wasn’t warm, which was disappointing. It could’ve been the first decent OG thing I’ve eaten in awhile and they let it sit out too long.
Our main dishes came. Before I even touched my pasta, I tried some of the salmon. It was well cooked, had a nice crust. The herbs on top were kind of salty, but overall it was easily the best thing I had ever eaten at Olive Garden. I wish I had a Never Ending Salmon Pass. Like a grizzly bear.
I don’t know if it was because I had a cold or if last night’s karaoke made me super hungry, but I inhaled my pasta. It wasn’t even that great, the Angel Hair was overcooked and I greatly prefer the Spicy Three Meat version of this sauce, but I quickly finished my bowl and asked for another. I was excited. I was actually getting Never Ending Pasta.
Then I saw the bowl you get when you ask for seconds. It's so much less than the first bowl, and it’s put in this tiny ceramic bowl of sadness, like an optical illusion to make you think you’re getting just as much as before. I know a fistful of pasta when I see it, Olive Garden.
Afterwards, my mom dropped me off at my apartment. She asked if I wanted to go to that huge new Goodwill that just opened on San Fernando. I wondered how she had so much energy. Then I remembered she didn’t have a cold and ate sensible salmon instead of a bowl and a half of pasta like me.
I told her no, some other time. I went inside my apartment, took two Alka-Seltzer, and went to bed, waiting for the next Olive Garden text to wake me from hibernation.