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Break the Chain: Olive Garden

I Ate Oklahoma is brought to you in part by:

In a perfect world, our families would like the same foods we do and shopping local would be second nature and we wouldn’t constantly be arguing about which political party is more corrupt. But it’s not a perfect world, which should be obvious, because I’m here and your sister-in-law still thinks El Chico has “the best Mexican food in town.”

Since I’m not going anywhere, I might as well try to help out by pointing you toward some good alternatives to chain restaurants. (If it can't be avoided, here's a guide to making the best of chain dining.)

This is just a first step, mind you. You’ll have to use some finesse to redirect your family toward better food. I still struggle with it, as evidenced by my parents hitting up Red Lobster on their anniversary, but it’s always worth a shot.

Olive Garden

People who love Olive Garden know what they want: giant portions and classic, red sauce Italian fare. And breadsticks. Man, do they love breadsticks.

People either really love Olive Garden or they hate it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Kind of like the music of The Chainsmokers.

I’m here to tell you: There’s a middle ground. You can be okay with Olive Garden without losing all of your foodie street cred. But I also know that it’s not my first choice and, I’m guessing, it’s not yours either. (I mean, you are reading this article on a website dedicated to local food, so…)

When you’re looking for an alternative, you need a place that serves spaghetti, fettuccine alfredo and lasagna. And, ideally, breadsticks. For you? Maybe something a little more exotic, like a nice linguine with clam sauce.

Caffe Pranzo

caffepranzookc.com

If you’re trying to win your family over to local Italian food, Caffe Pranzo is one of the best places to start. Get things rolling with some pesto-heavy bruschetta and let them peruse the menu. They can get all kinds of classic favorites, like a 22-layer lasagna and chicken parmigiana, while you dig into Primavera Aglio Olio — fettuccine with fresh vegetables — or a decadent seafood risotto. If there are kids along for the ride, good news! They have pizza.

Flip’s Wine Bar & Trattoria

flipswinebar.com

Cheese fries aren’t particularly big in Italy, so far as I know, but the Flip’s Fredo Fries are sure to please anyone who was craving Olive Garden’s creamy alfredo sauce. Manicotti will delight any diners with massive amounts of creamy cheese and both marinara and pesto, while the lasagna definitely brings plenty of meat to the table. For something a little less pedestrian, check out the pesto cream gnocchi. And be sure to grab a bottle of red for the table.

Gaberino’s Homestyle Italian

gaberinos.com

Gaberino’s hits all the right notes with their classic Italian dishes. The baked rigatoni is especially appetizing for those who crave massive amounts of gooey cheese melted over meat, pasta and sauce...which is everybody, right? They even have vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, if that’s a concern. My concern, however, is the always enticing seasonal menu. Shrimp and asparagus risotto? Yes, please.

Gabriella’s Italian Grill and Pizzeria

gabriellasokc.com

Plan ahead for Gabriella’s, where wait times can be long for those without reservations. Feed your family’s desire for kitschy “Italian” dishes like Italian nachos while you munch on an appetizer of mussels sauteed in white wine and butter with bacon, shallots and peppers.

Mamma’s spaghetti and meatballs is an excellent dish for red sauce lovers who are hesitant to venture further into the menu. But you’ll want to try the truffle fried chicken or the seasonal cioppino stew.  

Moni’s Pasta & Pizza

monisokc.com

Tucked away just outside of Edmond in north OKC, Moni’s menu runs the gamut from the familiar to the foreign with fettuccine alfredo and penne vodka alongside chicken franchese (think of it as chicken-fried chicken in a white wine and lemon sauce) and Stracciatella alla Roman — a roman egg drop soup with lemon that is absolutely spectacular. It’s got a very home-y vibe, too, which is sure to put parents and grandparents at ease.

Patrono

patronookc.com

This one might be a stretch, unless your family is actually super cool, because Patrono is about as far away from Olive Garden as you can get. Chef Jonathan Krell (#krellinit) has a few homestyle Italian favorites among his more adventurous dishes. Spaghetti with sausage or meatballs is a good bet and carbonara is a tasty creamy pasta dish that anyone will love. That said, the best stuff on the menu are aimed directly at foodies, like white Sicilian anchovies, beef carpaccio, ribeye alla griglia and jumbo lump crab piccata. Please Hammer, don’t hurt ‘em.

Rococo Restaurant & Fine Wine

rococo-restaurant.com

Bruce Rinehart done an awful lot for Italian food in Oklahoma City, but his red sauce recipes are only scratching the surface of Rococo’s beloved menu. Lasagna bolognese and fettuccine alfredo with chicken or shrimp are easy sells to the uninitiated, but the rest of us know that the real treats are further in. A famous Rococo crab cake is a must. This really is one of OKC’s finest spots for seafood, like penne with mussels or delicate sole Meunière.

Stella Modern Italian Cuisine

stella-okc.com

For a full review of Stella, click here. But the short and sweet of it is, Stella has tasty pizzas and some fun spins on classics that will satisfy any palate. Braised beef short rib rigatoni and wild boar bolognese are perfect for people who love meaty red sauce pasta. Smoked chicken lasagna is delicious, if a little different than the lasagna to which your family is most accustomed. But while they're chowing down on those, you're free to dig into lamb T-bones and whatever daily special chef Melissa Aust has magicked out of thin air for the night. Plus, the wine selection here is [mimes chef kissing his fingers].

Victoria’s The Pasta Shop

victoriasthepastashop.com

Few spots straddle the line between family friendly and adventurous as well as Victoria’s. Lemon and garlic butter linguine and classic spaghetti marinara are sure-fire hits for first timers. And you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t ga-ga for the famous lasagna rolls. But if you’re looking for something really special, the black pepper linguine, tossed with spinach, snow crab and lemon-garlic butter, is truly something to behold. You might go in planning to save half for tomorrow, but nobody can stop eating this stuff once you get started.

Vito’s Ristorante

vitosokc.com

Red sauce doesn’t get much redder than Cathy’s sugo at Vito’s. Passed down through her family, this hearty red sauce has the perfect balance of sweet and acid. The lasagna is meaty. The alfredo is creamy. It’s everything your family loves, but better. And for you? Chicken spedini is absolutely glorious and the cioppino is always hearty and complex. But pay attention for the daily specials: you may find something new to love.

About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

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