Tuscan formations

The Olive Garden shows that corporate can be good

GARDEN SALADS Michelle Duchesne, a server at the Olive Garden, offers a cheesy touch to the salads of Irene Sager (right) and Dorothy Beasley.

GARDEN SALADS Michelle Duchesne, a server at the Olive Garden, offers a cheesy touch to the salads of Irene Sager (right) and Dorothy Beasley.

Photo By Tom Angel

The Olive Garden Italian Restaurant and Café is located at 2020 Business Lane in Chico. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. & Sat. Phone: 898-8075.

My high-school friend Cindy had just returned to California after more than a decade in another state, during which time we had seen each other on only a handful of occasions. After driving for three days with a hyperactive dog in her passenger seat, she was more than ready for a hearty meal, a decent glass of wine and a benevolent “entry” into Chico life.

But where to take her? We drove to a couple of likely destinations, establishments of excellent reputation; however, as it was the height of the dinner hour, they were crowded and had intolerably long waiting lists.

We wandered over to The Olive Garden, which I hadn’t visited for a couple of years. I hadn’t cared for the extravagant servings of pasta I’d encountered on prior visits. Also, I usually go for non-chain restaurants first. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn the Olive Garden’s menu had changed and that a pleasing variety of newer (and pasta-free) choices awaited me.

There was a short wait, so the pleasant hostess showed us to the small bar, where we drank iced tea. It proved to be a “Chico casual” kind of place to catch up and ogle people. Tempting appetizers were available, including the Create a Sampler Italiano (three choices, $8.95, two choices, $8.25), but we held off. Before long we were shown to our table, which was draped in a nice linen cloth.

From the hostess to the bartenders to the waitresses—soignà college-aged men and women—everyone showered us with good service. Having eaten at a non-chain Chico establishment a couple of weeks previously, I couldn’t help but notice The Olive Garden won hands down when it came to the wait staff. We especially loved the fun and snappy interactivity of some of the personnel, and we appreciated their suggestions for main courses and wines.

Some of the newer dishes that looked interesting included the Parmesan Crusted Chicken and the Three-Meat Ravioli. In perusing the well-presented menu, I saw a dish I’d liked on past visits: Shrimp Primavera.

One aspect of dining at The Olive Garden that totally rocks is how they bring a big bowl of crisp lettuce, tomato and onion salad, simply dressed in oil and vinegar, to your table and allow you to serve yourself. We enjoyed delicious, freshly baked garlic breadsticks with our greens (homemade soup is also available).

We both ordered the Chicken and Steak Grill ($14.95), and when it arrived, we were happy to find it artfully arranged. Some chain restaurants fail when it comes to presentation. We did find the dish over-seasoned, however—a bit on the salty side. The chef should recheck the amount of seasoning he is using. But the meat was cooked just right, and the grilled vegetables had a nice “crispy” texture. The side dish served with the entràe was Tuscan potatoes, which alone could entice me back (if you are counting carbs, you can substitute grilled veggies—but I wasn’t counting that night).

While I usually would order the Lambrusco ($15) at The Olive Garden, so I could drink like a “real” Italian while I ate, I cheerily recommend the Rosso Principato ($23), which was very agreeable.

The only drawback we found as the evening progressed was that the place became busier and noisier as we ate, and we found it a bit challenging to converse. But, for those Tuscan potatoes, it was worth it.

While I hadn’t expected much from a chain restaurant, I once again learned: Surrender expectations. The Olive Garden gives a notable repast to road-weary friends and others.