When you’re here, you’re eating: A quest with Olive Garden’s ‘Never Ending Pasta Pass’

WASHINGTON — It was a culinary quest that came about quite by accident.

I did not necessarily seek to dine at Olive Garden multiple times over the course of eight weeks. To be honest, when the restaurant chain announced that their annual “Never Ending Pasta Pass” promotion would include a chance for 50 to enjoy a week in Italy all expenses paid, it became the driving force behind my efforts to earn that plastic card.

Alas, I did not get the opportunity to flash my passport across the Atlantic. But in a separate effort, I managed to get my hands on the regular $100 pass, which allows its holders to visit the chain as many times as they want and enjoy unlimited servings of specified dishes between Sept. 25 and Nov. 19.

WTOP's Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP’s Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP’s Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP’s Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman flashes his Pasta Pass outside the Falls Church Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP’s Brandon Millman flashes his Pasta Pass outside the Falls Church Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
A salad at the Falls Church Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
A salad at the Falls Church Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The breadsticks. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The breadsticks. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Rigatoni with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Rigatoni with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Harrisonburg Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Harrisonburg Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Cavatappi with fettuccine alfredo and grilled chicken. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Cavatappi with fettuccine Alfredo and grilled chicken. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Wine at the Harrisonburg Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Wine at the Harrisonburg Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Leaving a nice comment at the Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Leaving a nice comment at the Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Outside the Hyattsville Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Outside the Hyattsville Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Whole grain linguine with Asiago garlic Alfredo. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Whole grain linguine with Asiago garlic Alfredo. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Crispy shrimp fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Crispy shrimp fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Columbus, Ohio, Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Columbus, Ohio, Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with five-cheese marinara. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with five-cheese marinara. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Grilled chicken and spaghetti with creamy mushroom. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Grilled chicken and spaghetti with creamy mushroom. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman brandishes his Never Ending Pasta Pass outside the Newark, Delaware Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP’s Brandon Millman brandishes his Never Ending Pasta Pass outside the Newark, Delaware, Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Spaghetti with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Spaghetti with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Vienna. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Vienna. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Rigatoni with five-cheese marinara and Italian sausage. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Rigatoni with five-cheese marinara and Italian sausage. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Gluten-free rotini with traditional marinara and Italian sausage. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Gluten-free rotini with traditional marinara and Italian sausage. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Bowie. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Bowie. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with Asiago garlic Alfredo and crispy chicken fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with Asiago garlic Alfredo and crispy chicken fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Fairfax Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Fairfax Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Whole grain linguine with traditional marinara and crispy shrimp fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Whole grain linguine with traditional marinara and crispy shrimp fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Columbia. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Columbia. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Fettuccine with Alfredo and grilled chicken. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Fettuccine with Alfredo and grilled chicken. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Sterling Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Sterling Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
A delicious glass of riesling. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
A delicious glass of riesling. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Spaghetti with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Spaghetti with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman) (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Olive Garden: The big destination for those with a Pasta Pass. (Courtesy Olive Garden/Jeffery Patrick)
Olive Garden: The big destination for those with a Pasta Pass. (Courtesy Olive Garden/Jeffery Patrick) (Courtesy Olive Garden/Jeffery Patrick)
Pasta, pasta and breadsticks. (Courtesy Olive Garden)
Pasta, pasta and breadsticks. (Courtesy Olive Garden) (Courtesy Olive Garden)
(1/34)
WTOP's Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman receives his Never Ending Pasta Pass from Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman flashes his Pasta Pass outside the Falls Church Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
A salad at the Falls Church Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The breadsticks. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Rigatoni with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Harrisonburg Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Cavatappi with fettuccine alfredo and grilled chicken. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Wine at the Harrisonburg Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Leaving a nice comment at the Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Outside the Hyattsville Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Whole grain linguine with Asiago garlic Alfredo. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Crispy shrimp fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Columbus, Ohio, Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with five-cheese marinara. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Grilled chicken and spaghetti with creamy mushroom. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
WTOP's Brandon Millman brandishes his Never Ending Pasta Pass outside the Newark, Delaware Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Spaghetti with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Vienna. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Rigatoni with five-cheese marinara and Italian sausage. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Gluten-free rotini with traditional marinara and Italian sausage. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Bowie. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Angel hair with Asiago garlic Alfredo and crispy chicken fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Fairfax Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Whole grain linguine with traditional marinara and crispy shrimp fritta. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Olive Garden in Columbia. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Fettuccine with Alfredo and grilled chicken. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The Sterling Olive Garden. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
A delicious glass of riesling. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
The meal: Spaghetti with traditional meat sauce and meatballs. (WTOP/Brandon Millman)
Olive Garden: The big destination for those with a Pasta Pass. (Courtesy Olive Garden/Jeffery Patrick)
Pasta, pasta and breadsticks. (Courtesy Olive Garden)

Still, to visit 10 times (about the number of trips to make full use of the card) sounded hard before my first visit just days into the promotion. During that first visit in Falls Church, I made the mistake of eating too much salad and too many breadsticks before the bowl of rigatoni with traditional meat sauce and meatballs arrived. I barely got through the bowl before crying uncle.

While 10 visits is the average for the 22,000 who receive the cards, some go to extremes with their dining, said Olive Garden Jessica Dinon, public relations and communications manager.

“A man in South Florida has exceeded 124 meals over the promotion, exceeding the previous record of 115 meals,” Dinon said.

That’s too much. Even in my younger days of faster metabolism, I could not fathom eating that much pasta and buttered carbs at least twice a day, every day.

And aside from my second visit to the Harrisonburg location days later, it did not get any easier to eat more than a few bites from the bowl, especially if I ordered a drink other than a glass of wine or raspberry lemonade.

The struggle was real, just as real as the fettuccine Alfredo that stayed with me long after the meal was over. The larger the noodles, the quicker I would nearly fall into a post-meal trance, making the drive home from the restaurant all the more difficult. Even the two times I substituted soup for salad, it became quite filling before the large bowl of pasta and sauce arrived.

It was one reason I nearly abandoned the project, almost turning over my card to anyone with a stronger stomach. But I can be a stubborn man at times, and when I set a goal, I intend to reach it … even if I’m coming back from the wedding of a great friend and stopping in Delaware, or battling the traffic to consume linguine with marinara and crispy shrimp fritta in Fairfax.

My heart was warmed when I visited the Bowie location on Veterans Day. To see the restaurant filled with our nation’s finest — enjoying a well-earned free meal with their friends and family — was heartening to see.

The chain also gave their local restaurant managers the opportunity to award one Pasta Pass to someone they believed to be deserving in the cities they serve.

“We wanted to give them a chance to make a meaningful connection with a respected member of their community,” Dinon said.

Now I truly did not feel worthy of possessing the card.

But I soldiered on, making it to the final visit, near the flight path of Dulles International Airport on a blustery Saturday night.

What initially felt like a punishment turned into a celebration of sorts. My waitress, Mariela, made sure I would enjoy my 10th and final visit. She let me sample numerous wines until I landed on a riesling that was perfect. The salad was plentiful and fresh, the breadsticks were hot and delicious, and even though it sounds basic, the spaghetti with meat sauce and meatballs hit the spot after sitting through the forever-taking (but good) “Blade Runner 2049.”

And even though my birthday was just under two weeks before, I felt as if the staff in Sterling was singing “Happy Birthday” to me, albeit five times at other tables nearby.

My only regret is that not once in the eight weeks did I order dessert.

It could have been the literal cherry on top of an experience I won’t soon forget, and will likely never undertake again.

Unless, of course, a trip to Italy is also in the works.

Takeaways

So what did I learn? Well, it definitely did confirm my metabolism just isn’t what it used to be. In my youth, this probably would have turned out to be a far more ambitious adventure. And eating with friends is always better than eating alone.

Yet I cannot imagine eating any sort of pasta the rest of this year. The likelihood of my going back to Olive Garden before we elect another president is also rather slim. Variety is the spice of life, but even dozens of potential bowl combinations just aren’t enough to warrant that many visits in such a short time span.

I might consider going after the card again next year, but only if the Italy trip is once again an option … then find a way to be charitable with the meals themselves.

Because surely that must be a better use of the card than consuming tens of thousands of calories in such a short time span.


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