A guest at The Olive Garden in Carlsbad's County Plaza North regarded the vast arrangement of breaded and fried tidbits on the "Italian Sampler" plate and said, "They give you a lot of food for the money."
A few minutes later, upon the arrival of the family-style salad bowl (included in the price of the entree, with all the free refills you can handle, no less), she remarked, "I can see why people come here--they bring so much food."
And a few minutes after that, when the waitress unburdened herself of this guest's immense "Tour of Italy" combination plate, the comment, a little strained this time, was, "They do serve a lot of food."
Quantity is not an issue at The Olive Garden, a chain with numerous outlets in Southern California that takes the attitude that, if plenty is good, more is better. The cooking makes no effort to match that at the growing number of really good Italian houses to be found around the county, but for anyone who is truly hungry for an immense platter of pasta in tomato or cream sauce, this probably is the place. It certainly is a place for families and features an accommodatingly casual, lively atmosphere that the restaurant describes as "hospitaliano."
The look supposedly imitates an Italian cafe, but most noticeable are the demonstration pasta-making kitchen in the lobby and the heavy aroma of tomato sauce that pervades the atmosphere.
The service one evening gave the impression that The Olive Garden is one of those establishments that instructs the staff to "market" selected items, because the server in one area approached each newly seated table with the suggestion that an "Italian Sampler" was the most blissful conceivable commencement for the meal.
At $5.50, and sized sufficiently to serve two to four, the plate was reasonable and acceptable, although the insistence upon breaded items was both dull and heavy. Included in the selection were shrimp (supposedly Venetian-style, which must mean topped with bread crumbs), crumb-stuffed mushrooms, fried zucchini sticks and mozzarella triangles and a rather unusual offering called "toasted ravioli" that was exactly what it sounds to be--and not very good.
The restaurant's generosity perhaps provokes the most gratitude with the salad bowl, a respectable toss of greens, tomatoes, olives and peppers seasoned with a good, strong blend of vinegar and oil. With this the server brings a basket of fresh, hot, narrow buns brushed with garlic butter that are tasty.
The restaurant turns out its own fresh pastas through the day and night; the list includes spaghetti and fettuccine, of course, along with mostaciolli , linguine (to be served in white clam sauce) and spinach tortelloni stuffed with herbed cheese. On the fancier side are lasagna, cannelloni (filled with beef, veal, chicken and cheeses) and manicotti.
Besides pastas, the menu lists the standard offerings of American Italian restaurants, including veal parmigiana or piccata , chicken Marsala and shrimp "scampi." Seafood offerings also include grilled swordfish, fettuccine Alfredo topped with crab and shrimp with mushrooms, peppers and onions, again served over fettuccine.
A server rather curiously explained that "the desserts are shipped in, but they're homemade," which means they are not homemade. Even so, a cannoli was light, crisp and generously stuffed with a tasty cream filling; it was a bright spot of the meal. Other choices among sweets are Amaretto-flavored zabaglione (custard sauce) served over strawberries; tiramisu, and zuppa inglese , the English-Italian pudding of cake, custard and fruit.
The Olive Garden
1884 Marron Road, Carlsbad
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees from $6.25 to $12.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45.