Putting the Olive Garden Never Ending Pasta Pass to Test

Just how good -- or bad -- is Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Pass?

— -- Ever since I shelled out a hundred bucks for Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Pass (arguably a misnomer, since the promotion does, in fact, end after seven weeks), I’ve been planning my eating strategy with the meticulousness of a wartime general. I had calculated that I would have to go to Olive Garden at least 10 times in that time period, as each pasta bowl is regularly priced at $9.99 plus tax and tip, to make the purchase worth my while. Challenge accepted.

Operation OG begins for me on Tuesday, Sept. 23, the second night of the promotion, with three girlfriends in tow. My goal for this first visit is simple: to come out of the restaurant paying as little as ethically possible to see just how good a deal this is.

Approaching the host station, I request a table for four and announce triumphantly that I am a Pasta Pass Holder (PPH), thrusting my envelope at the hostess with enough gusto that it could have been a winning lottery ticket. She seems unimpressed.

Our waiter, by contrast, is thrilled to tell me that I am his first PPH. He goes on to (mis)inform us that the Pasta Pass is actually good for pasta bowls for up to seven people. I know this is not the case, because I have carefully read the instructions on my Pasta Pass repeatedly, and it clearly states that guests of a PPH are entitled to complimentary soft drinks, but nothing else. Despite gently arguing with him, he continues to insist that we’re all about to eat for free, so we let the issue drop.

We check out the separate menu created especially for the promotion – 150 possible combinations in all. I opt for a fettuccine alfredo with chicken fritta, one friend gets penne with five cheese marinara and chicken, and the other two friends both get penne with five cheese marinara and sausage. We all enthusiastically agree to unlimited salad and breadsticks. Because my goal on Night 1 is frugality, I opt for just a soft drink (also included with the Pasta Pass). My other three friends splurge for wine.

Three baskets of breadsticks and a heaping bowl of salad later, I’m ashamed to say that on Night 1 of my Italian Renaissance, I don’t even make it through one single bowl of pasta, let alone infinity. The alfredo sauce was a little bland and, let’s be honest, there was no need for the chicken to be fried. My companions reported that they enjoyed the five-cheese marinara (which was not that cheesy and really just vodka sauce), and their sausage was fine, but could have been a bit spicier. Two of us carry leftovers home; the other two clear their plates but also can’t progress to a second bowl. No one orders dessert.

At the end of the night – once the manager has cleared up the waiter’s “misunderstanding” – my friends pay about $25 each for their meals. (A plain pasta bowl with sauce is $9.99, meat is $3 to $4 extra, wine is about $7 a glass, plus tax and an 18% included gratuity.) My bill, on the other hand, is zero dollars – though I do leave a $5 tip.

My fellow diners said they would go back to Olive Garden with me during the Pasta Pass promotion for the "novelty and nostalgia" factor, but that the quality of the food didn't justify the price at the end of the day.

However, as a PPH with a quota to hit, I have no doubt I’ll be making several more trips to Olive Garden between now and Nov. 9. One future quest will include testing the restaurant’s (and my digestive system’s) understanding of “unlimited.” If nothing else, I have 149 other Unlimited Pasta Bowl combinations to try. Stay tuned for updates as I take on this challenge.