This is why Olive Garden's breadsticks are so delicious

When you think of Olive Garden, chances are pretty good that the first thing that comes to mind isn't pasta, it's breadsticks. That's because their breadsticks are almost shockingly delicious, better than any simple piece of bread has a real right to be.

If you're the type that gets even a little disappointed when your food gets to the table and the breadsticks are pushed to the side, you're not alone. In 2014, Olive Garden investor Starboard Value pointed out (via Vox) that every year, Olive Garden serves up somewhere between 675 and 700 million breadsticks each year. That's an average of three per guest, but let's put it another way: That's enough for almost every resident of the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, and the United Kingdom to have one (as of 2019).

That's a ton of breadsticks, and really, it's only Olive Garden's fault for making them just so gosh darn good. But here's a question: Why are they so good, anyway?

Some locations have employees dedicated to breadsticks

Obviously, Olive Garden isn't going to put their actual recipe online for the whole world to find, because then, what reason would we have to actually go to Olive Garden? So, in order to find out what the secret is behind their breadsticks, we'll have to go to the people who know best: those who work there.

And that's part of it. The breadsticks aren't just an afterthought or an aside, something that gets mixed up in a giant batch, rolled, and chucked in the oven a few times a day. According to one Olive Garden employee posting on Reddit, their sole responsibility was to "make glorious breadsticks." That's it! All day, every day — to which one commenter responded, "You're doing God's work."

Another Redditor who claimed to be a former server and bartender clarified a bit, saying each and every Olive Garden employed "a lot" of people who were responsible for making the breadsticks, and that's a pretty good indication of just how seriously the chain takes their free appetizers. (According to some, it's part of the server's job at other locations, so it seems to vary by store.)

They're topped with a special concoction

They go through a ton of breadsticks, and it's tough to imagine just how many there really are. One Redditor who posted about their Olive Garden job — which was solely to make the breadsticks — estimated that they went through about 120 pans of breadsticks each and every night, and since there's 18 sticks per pan, that works out to about 2,160 per night... give or take.

That's 2,160 hot breadsticks, but it's not just the bread itself that makes them taste so good. That brings us to another secret: It's all about the concoction that gets smeared on the top. You're getting that craving for breadsticks just thinking about it, aren't you?

So, what's actually in the topping? According to a server who spoke to Cosmopolitan, most of it comes down to, of course, the melted butter. The rest is garlic salt, but they also say that's it's not the same type of garlic salt you pick up at the store — so if you're trying to recreate this taste at home, you're out of luck. It turns out it's a variety of garlic salt they make just for their breadsticks.

And it's lathered on with a giant brush

There's an old saying, and it's something about how quality is more important than quantity. Or something like that. But at Olive Garden, it's about quality and quantity, and there's another reason you're not alone if you've ever decided to go there just for the breadsticks.

We're not just talking about the breadsticks themselves, we're talking about that delicious concoction that goes on top. According to a Redditor who says their main job at Olive Garden is making everyone's favorite breadsticks, they didn't just drizzle on the buttery topping, they slathered it on with something akin to a giant paint brush.

That's pretty much how all butter should be applied to bread, right? All melty and warm, and in large quantities... that's just about as close to perfect as you can get. And, in case you're wondering, the Redditor also says that yes, by the time the shift is over the employees do end up smelling like garlic. Why Olive Garden hasn't released an air freshener or candles that capture that scent, it's impossible to say, but Olive Garden? If you're listening? You can have that idea for free.

They're not the healthiest choice

Now here's the bad news, which — given that each of those breadsticks is just absolutely covered in butter — you can probably guess by now. They're not exactly health food, and that's probably one of the reasons they taste so darn good. Everyone knows there's a direct relationship between healthy, unhealthy, desirability, and taste... so yeah, these are pretty bad for you.

One breadstick comes with 140 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and 25 grams of carbohydrates. Not... terrible? But who eats just one? If you don't leave having eaten at least a couple, you're seriously not doing Olive Garden right.

There's worse news, too: All that garlic salt adds up. Each breadstick has 460 milligrams of sodium, so if you eat 3, you're at 1,380 milligrams. And that's awful, especially considering you still have your main course and your soup to go, and those are probably packed with sodium, too. According to the American Heart Association, the average adult should be trying to limit their sodium intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day... and those breadsticks aren't helping at all.

They're an unlimited shareable appetizer

This one's a little weird and pretty cool, and it just might change the way you think of going out for dinner. First, picture your typical Olive Garden meal. Your server brings the breadsticks, and everyone at the table grabs one. You all comment about how great they are, and you all try to decide how soon is too soon to grab the last one. It turns out that there's actually a weird social phenomenon going on here, and according to the Harvard Business Review, it has to do with the fact that those breadsticks are a shared experience.

A study at Yale showed that people who ate food around other people eating the same thing typically enjoyed it more than if they were the only one eating a particular dish. They think it has something to do with the connections we make over shared experiences, and hey, there's another reason to actually share those breadsticks.

Olive Garden adds something else into the mix, too: The breadsticks are unlimited. Gone is the stress over wondering whether or not you should grab the last one. There's no worry over offending your dining mates when you can just flag someone down and ask for some more. Do you know what else you can ask for? According to an Olive Garden server who spoke to Cosmopolitan, you can also ask for microwavable breadstick bags to go. Now you know.

They have their roots in authentic Italian cuisine

There's a lot of stuff on the Olive Garden menu that just isn't authentic Italian, and we've all come to accept that. But while the breadsticks aren't 100 percent Italian, either, Thrillist says they do have their roots in two very traditional Italian items: taralli and grissini.

Food historians typically point to taralli as being the thing that's most similar to American-style breadsticks. They're a sort of flaky-but-fried bread that's part pretzel, part breadstick, and it originated in southern Italy. Immigrants brought it to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, and a favorite of Italian-American cuisine was born. Grissini is another potential influence, a type of breadstick invented in the 17th century as first a royal food, then an affordable option for on-the-go peasants.

Either way, breadsticks became popular thanks to something else: the pizza that immigrants also brought. They were made to use up some of the leftover dough, so it's entirely possible that they're so good because they got their start in something authentic.

They're representative of Italian generosity

Olive Garden has had its struggles, and in 2014, shareholders started to demand they get rid of those free breadsticks. When investor Starboard Value put together a nearly 300-slide presentation condemning the way Olive Garden was being run, one of their biggest beefs was breadsticks (via Today).

But don't worry, Olive Garden and parent company Darden stood firm. According to them, they weren't about to get rid of the breadsticks because of what they represented: "Italian generosity."

And that might just have something to do with making them taste downright delicious, too. It's no secret that food tastes better when it's served with a giving spirit and eaten when surrounded by friends and family, so it's entirely possible that this — along with all that melted butter goodness — comes together to create the perfect appetizer, and it also might be why your own attempts at making them are close... but just a little bit off. It's all right, it doesn't have anything to do with you; it's just Olive Garden magic.