Eating out when you can’t eat gluten is hard to do, and the Olive Garden, unfortunately, doesn’t make this process easier. In this post, I’ll talk about what’s gluten free at the Olive Garden and take you on a tour of the Olive Garden’s “gluten-free menu.” I also tested three items for hidden gluten and reveal the results below. This post contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosures.
Before being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012, I loved eating at the Olive Garden. I’d always ordered a big bowl of pasta or chicken parmesan, and I always indulged in one too many soft and doughy breadsticks. I couldn’t get enough of the bottomless salads with crunchy croutons either.
Alas, my breadstick and gluten-y pasta days are behind me now that I have celiac disease, a rare autoimmune disease where my body attacks the healthy tissue lining my small intestine every time I eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats.
However, despite being on a strict gluten-free diet, I still, on occasion, have had a meal at the Olive Garden. It’s not my favorite restaurant because the gluten-free food is only okay, at best. And to be honest with you, after I wrote this article, and found hidden gluten in one of my dishes, I haven’t been back.
If you eat at the Olive Garden, you need to do so with a whole lot of caution, make good choices when ordering, and communicate your dietary needs as clearly and specifically as possible with your server.
In this article, I’ll discuss what’s gluten free at the Olive Garden, as well as share my experiences at the restaurant when I tested my food for hidden gluten using my Nima Sensor, a portable gluten-detecting device. You can learn more about the Nima Sensor in this article, 13 Things to Know About the Nima Sensor.
Eating Gluten Free at the Olive Garden
The Olive Garden has a “Gluten Sensitive” menu, not a gluten-free menu. Please note the Olive Garden makes this menu available for people who have difficulty eating gluten, but infers that it’s not a celiac-safe menu by any measure.
The Olive Garden says on its website, “The menu items we call “gluten sensitive” are our menu items that are made without gluten-containing ingredients. We do not claim these items are “gluten free” because we have not chemically analyzed them to confirm if they meet the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of “gluten free” (20 parts per million of gluten). While we do have processes and procedures in place to minimize cross-contact with other gluten-containing foods, these items may not be suitable for our guests who are highly sensitive to gluten. Please know that our “gluten free” pasta does meet FDA’s formal definition of gluten free.”
While the menu is not celiac-safe, the Olive Garden does have some important processes in place to minimize the risk of cross contamination with gluten-y items on its menu.
Cross contamination occurs when a gluten-free food comes in contact with gluten, either in direct contact or through shared cutting boards, cooking and prepping surfaces, and/or unclean hands, among other means.
The restaurant says it cooks its gluten-free brown rice pasta in a “sanitized kettle” instead of the pasta cookers used to cook the other pasta. “This pasta is then held separately until ordered. At that time it is added directly to the sauté pan to avoid cross contact with other pasta or pasta water,” says the Olive Garden on its website.
Furthermore, the restaurant says its famous Italian salad dressing does not contain gluten ingredients, however it is produced in a facility that also produces gluten ingredients. I’m usually okay with shared facilities; I’m not okay with shared manufacturing equipment. This is an important distinction. Please read this article to learn more about gluten-free labels and claims and what each means.
The Olive Garden does not maintain a dedicated gluten-free fryer, so any items cooked in the fryer are off limits due to high risk of cross contamination. And of course, the breadsticks are a no-go too.
Some of the items you can order (at your own risk, knowing the the possibility of cross contamination) if you’re following a gluten-free diet include:
- Famous House Salad (without croutons)
- Zuppa Toscana
- Sirloin Steak
- Grilled Chicken Parmesan
- Rotini Pasta with Marinara
- Rotini Pasta with Meat Sauce
- Herb Grilled Salmon
The Olive Garden also has a few items for gluten-sensitive kids, including:
- Grilled Chicken with Rotini Pasta and Marinara
- Rotini Pasta with Marinara Sauce
- Rotini Pasta with Meat Sauce
Testing the Olive Garden with My Nima Sensor
I decided to test some of the gluten-sensitive dishes at the Olive Garden with my Nima Sensor, just to make sure they were truly gluten free.
The Nima Sensor is a portable gluten-detecting device that enables you to test a small portion of your food for hidden gluten. It cannot tell you if the entire dish is free of gluten, and it’s not a substitute for lazy ordering; rather, it’s simply a tool you can use to decode if your dish is really gluten free.
You can learn more about the Nima Sensor in this article, 13 Things to Know About the Nima Sensor. I also discuss the accuracy of the Nima Sensor in detail in this article, Is the Nima Sensor Accurate?
I ordered the gluten-free pasta with marinara sauce and my Nima Sensor did not find any gluten. A smiley face means no gluten found.
I also tested the salad with Italian dressing and no croutons for hidden gluten, and Nima was all smiles again. No gluten found.
Finally, I tested the grilled chicken parmesan for hidden gluten. Please note the gluten-sensitive version of this classic dish comes with grilled vs. breaded/fried chicken. (Not as good, but what can you do?)
I tested a piece of the chicken with sauce and cheese (twice) and Nima came up with the same “Gluten Found” warning.
After Nima found gluten, I spoke with my server and the restaurant manager to explain what happened. The manager was not apologetic or sympathetic at all; rather, she was quite defensive.
She lectured me on how the Olive Garden is just a “gluten-sensitive” restaurant and could not guarantee items on its “gluten-sensitive menu” would be free from gluten. She went on to explain to me how it was okay for gluten sensitive people to eat a little gluten and not get sick (wrong!).
Finally, she offered to make me a new dish, but after her insensitive lecture, I took a hard pass on the offer and asked for my check.
Many restaurants, like Maggiano’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and The Cheesecake Factory, have been sympathetic – and even apologetic – to me when my Nima Sensor finds gluten. And I’ve never found gluten in my gluten-free dishes from restaurants such as Red Robin and Bonefish Grill. Even the Mellow Mushroom gluten-free pizza is prepared safely in a chaotic pizza kitchen!
I realize that it’s difficult for the Olive Garden to maintain a strict gluten-free environment. I get it and I’m not insensitive to that plight.
However, if a restaurant is going to “cash in” on the gluten-free trend, but not offer those who really need a gluten-free meal a safe option (like those with actual celiac disease), then the restaurant deserves to be called out for its insincerity and my party of four, six or eight guests won’t be eating there.
To see the Nima Sensor in action, please watch my Facebook Live at the Olive Garden video:
I love eating out despite my diet “disability,” and I’ve dedicated much of my energy to helping others eat out gluten free as safely as possible too.
Please consider reading my ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten Free if eating out is a source of angst for you. I’ll teach you how to do it as successfully as possible.
You can also get my book, Dear Gluten, It’s Not Me, It’s You, for more information about following a gluten-free lifestyle, including tons of information about eating out and traveling while gluten free.
I encourage you to invest in a gluten-detecting device. A few to research include Nima Sensor, ALLIS Sensor and The Allergy Amulet. Not all of these companies have gluten-detecting devices available at the time this article was last updated.
I also encourage you to visit my Eating Out Library to see how other restaurants fared when tested for hidden gluten.
Finally, you might enjoy this article, 5 Things I Wish Restaurants Knew About Gluten Free. I offer advice to restaurants on how they can step up their gluten-free game!