CSPI Inspects Olive Garden & Romano’s Macaroni Grill

WASHINGTON—Nothing’s more American than “Italian” entrées like lasagna, ravioli, and spaghetti with meatballs. And Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, with 568 and 238 units in the United States respectively, are selling a combined $3.4 billion worth of fried calamari, chicken marsala, and other foods each year. The Center for Science in the Public Interest—the nutrition watchdogs who famously called fettuccine Alfredo a “heart attack on a plate” when they first looked at Italian food in 1994—commissioned independent lab tests (for Olive Garden) and examined company-provided data (for Macaroni Grill). Their picks and pans are published in the November issue of the group’s Nutrition Action Healthletter.

“If you wanted to enjoy the health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet, you’d eat mostly fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fish,” said CSPI nutrition director Bonnie F. Liebman. “But the heaping portions of meat, cheese, pasta, and cream sauces served up at Italian-style American chain restaurants are about as far from the ideal Mediterranean diet as you can get.”

The bottom line is that just about every plate of pasta at Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill is piled with more than 1,000 calories, according to CSPI. Only a few dishes—like grilled chicken or salmon with a side of vegetables—keep the calories down around 500. But some virtuous-sounding chicken or veal dishes at Macaroni Grill hover in the 1,200-calorie range and provide at least a day’s worth of saturated fat, sometimes two days’ worth. In most cases, you’re getting an meal that’s roughly equal to a 16-oz. trimmed T-bone steak with a sour-cream-topped baked potato and a Caesar side salad at a typical steak house. Some of CSPI’s pans (and picks) include:


  • Lasagna Classico. 1,060 calories and 28 grams of bad fat (saturated plus trans fat— but the trans fat at both chains is naturally occurring and minimal). It’s like eating a BK Quad Stacker from Burger King, which has four beef patties, four slices of cheese, and eight strips of bacon.
  • Five Cheese Ziti al Forno. 1,190 calories and 26 grams of bad fat. You might as well just order two McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese or two Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizzas.
  • Spaghetti & Meatballs. You can expect 1,260 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat (19 grams). That’s equal to the calories in three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders. If that seems like a lot to swallow, it’s half what you’d get in Macaroni Grill’s version.
  • Olive Garden Picks: CSPI’s lab tests found 790 calories in the Linguine alla Marinara—more than the 550 calories the chain reports. Capellini Pomodoro, pasta with tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil, also had more calories that the company stated (990 as opposed to 640). But both dishes had only 2 grams of saturated fat. “Garden Fare” items such as Venetian Apricot Chicken (450 calories), Shrimp Primavera (690 calories), and Pork Filettino (if ordered with vegetables, not potatoes, just 340 calories) are among the best choices.


  • Fettuccine Alfredo. Macaroni Grill’s version lives up to the “heart attack on a plate” reputation with 1,130 calories and 53 grams of saturated fat—more than 2½ days’ worth. (Olive Garden’s version had a few more calories but “only” 1½ days’ worth of bad fat.) People who wouldn’t dream of eating a pound of prime rib might not guess that Fettuccini Alfredo is roughly equivalent.
  • Spaghetti & Meatballs with meat sauce. The following nutrition numbers are not typos: Romano’s rendition of this classic dish provides more than an entire day’s calories (2,430) and nearly three days’ worth of saturated fat—an astonishing 57 grams. If you like meat, you could eat two Macaroni Grill Tuscan Rib-Eye steak dinners and inflict less damage. Or you could eat six Quarter Pounders for the same effect on your waistline.
  • New York Cheesecake or Tiramisu. Order a 1,000-calorie slice of cheesecake or tiramisu and you might as well finish off your meal with an untrimmed 16-ounce T-bone steak with five pats of butter. The cheesecake and tiramisu each have about 2 days’ worth of saturated fat; the deep-fried “Dessert Ravioli” has 1,630 calories and 1½ days’ bad fat.
  • Romano’s Macaroni Grill Picks: Two grilled entrées—Pollo Magro “Skinny Chicken” and Simple Salmon—come with broccoli and asparagus and have a modest 330 and 590 calories, respectively. Each is deemed “Sensible Fare” on the menu.

“Keep in mind that these numbers don’t include any of Macaroni Grill’s peasant bread or Olive Garden’s unlimited breadsticks and salad,” said Liebman. “Nor do they include 1,000-calorie appetizers like fried calamari. If you want pasta, go with tomato sauce instead of cream sauces or anything stuffed, and take home at least half for tomorrow. If it’s not under a layer of cheese, grilled chicken or fish with a side of veggies is a good choice.”

Consider a hypothetical couple who dines at Romano’s Macaroni Grill: They share the calamari and the complimentary peasant bread. He orders the Penne Rustica; she the Chicken and Shrimp Scaloppine. They split the tiramisu. The damage? They’ve each had more than three days’ worth of saturated fat and sodium. And they’ve each had on the order of 2,800 calories—about a day-and-a-half’s worth. And those aren’t even the unhealthiest choices on the menu.

“You’d have to walk briskly for 11 hours or jog an entire marathon to burn off 2,800 calories,” said Liebman. “But frankly, the only activity most people can devote that kind of time to is sitting in front of a television or computer. No wonder so many Americans are now the shape of a meatball.”