I seem to have a natural allergic reaction to huge chain restaurants. Maybe I'm spoiled by there not being any real chains in Caracas while I was growing up (sadly enough, there are many now...) or by living in the North End of Boston for a few years, where small family-run Italian restaurants are the norm. So, it was with some reservation that I went to the Olive Garden by the Whitehall Mall in Allentown, PA, for lunch. The size of it had kept me away up until now.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself in the midsts of a cozy, inviting restaurant, where the food all around us smelled simply delicious. Much to their credit, whoever designed the Olive Garden managed to create the atmosphere of a smaller restaurant by dividing the enormous place into smaller areas. Using half walls and numerous plants, the Olive Garden felt as though it were one of those small restaurants back in the North End in Boston. Well, almost.
The menu was varied, offering a diversity of sauces and pastas to please every palate. After ordering manicotti and lasagna, we were offered the most exquisite tossed salad and some garlic bread. The salad was obviously freshly tossed, consisting of a mixture of garden vegetables, sweet peppers, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese in a wonderful vinagrette dressing, and served in a large bowl where everyone could get their own. The garlic bread was the most disappointing part of the meal; more of a soft roll covered with garlic butter instead of crusty bread, it was judged to be lacking something. All in all, not bad, but not good. Both the salad and the garlic bread have unlimited refills.
I found the manicotti to be delicate in flavor, a perfect balance between the sauce and the chicken and cheese filling. The lasagna was also exquisite, filled with a meat sauce and three cheeses. The rations were appropriate for lunch, especially after the unlimited amount of salad or soup that preceeded them. The prices are very reasonable for lunch, $5.50 - $9.00 a plate, and the option to just have unlimited soup and salad for $5.50 is very tempting.
I have, since that first time, gone back a couple of times (because of those strange coincidences of life...) and found other dishes to be equally good, which makes me think pretty much anything on the menu will be well prepared. I had their meat ravioli special once, which to me was a treat (I was introduced to cheese raviolis only when I moved to the States), especially because they were the homemade kind, and another time someone in my party had a very good looking cheese calzone. The pasta e fagioli soup got great reviews from a couple of people, as did the minestrone.
Needles to say, the Olive Graden boasts a very Italian menu, and sometimes even the stereotypical Italian music ("O Sole Mio" was spotted playing in the background a couple of times), but without the gawdy pictures of Venice featured in most places that just try to be Italian. The vinaigrette is sold bottled to the public, and a peek at their dinner menu declared it to be just as reasonably priced for dinner.
The Olive Garden, 735 Grape Street, Whitehall, PA - (610) 266-6777
Hours: Sun. - Thurs. 11am -10pm; Fri. & Sat. 11am - 11pm.