Olive Garden Shrimp Scampi: What To Know Before Ordering

You probably know what you're in for every time you head to Olive Garden. The chain is synonymous with quick Italian-American food and it's remarkably consistent. No matter where two people grew up in the U.S., their mental image of Olive Garden is pretty much the same. As noted in Eater, "There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors."

While the restaurant chain purports to offer an Italian countryside experience, its actual connections to Italy are shaky. While they tout their Culinary Institute of Tuscany as a world-class cooking school, the truth is, it's basically just a hotel where managers can do sightseeing (per Time). While menu items like fettuccine Alfredo or the famous Italian salad dressing may be rooted in traditional Italian cuisine, some of Olive Garden's dishes are totally not Italian.

Traditional cuisine from Italy does incorporate seafood, however, and if you find yourself at Olive Garden craving a shrimp scampi meal, here are important things you need to know before ordering.

What exactly is Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi?

Shrimp Scampi at Olive Garden, per the chain's menu, is a "lighter take on a classic." The dish includes sautéed shrimp, asparagus, and tomatoes, tossed with angel hair pasta in a creamy garlic sauce.

Is this the same dish you'd get if you ordered Shrimp Scampi in Italy? Not exactly — you might not even be served shrimp at all. Scampi happens to be a different species of seafood entirely, though similar to shrimp and prawns

The origin of the type of scampi Olive Garden serves is likely due to immigration. In her classic cookbook "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen," author Lidia Bastianich notes that Italian cooks in America may have ditched scampi in favor of easier-to-find shrimp, but kept both names to remind diners of traditional foods they ate back home (via The New York Times). And each cook putting their own spin on the new dish explains why some generational Italian-American recipes for scampi call for tomato sauce, breadcrumbs, or other seemingly non-traditional ingredients.

At Olive Garden, mountains of pasta are what generally get people in the door. It's why the restaurant keeps bringing back its never-ending pasta bowl — and it means that incorporating pasta into their version of Shrimp Scampi was a no-brainer.

Is Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi worth ordering?

Tradition aside, reviews are mixed on Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi. "My dish was very very good," one Yelp reviewer in Las Vegas wrote, noting "It was lightly sauced and my shrimp were huge. The asparagus was yummy and cooked perfectly. I enjoyed every last bite." However, others aren't so charitable. A commenter in Houston wrote that his bowl of scampi had too much asparagus, not enough pasta, and only a weak garlic flavor.

Professional food critics who have dined at Olive Garden, though, have enjoyed the dish. Although Cincinnati Enquirer critic Polly Campbell stated that her pasta was boiled past al-dente, she praised the dish's "good flavor." And critic Marilyn Hagerty, who went viral in 2012 with her earnest review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota, returned in 2018 — at the age of 92 years old — for the scampi, which she said was worth the visit.

Prices may vary by location, but generally, if you spring for the shrimp dish, you'll be charged $19.99. This is more than you'd pay for some cheese or chicken dishes, like the Five-Cheese Ziti al Forno at $16.99 or Olive Garden's Chicken Parmigiana at $18.49. However, the scampi is a deal compared to most other seafood entrees at Olive Garden, such as Shrimp Alfredo or Herb-Grilled Salmon, which ring up at over $20.

How Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi is made

The recipe for the dish is fairly simple, although Olive Garden's may slightly differ from the quick 5-ingredient Shrimp Scampi recipe by Aldi. In a local news segment in Rockford, Illinois, an Olive Garden chef demonstrated how to make the famous dish. Although this final product comes together with a little "magic of television," the dish can be made fairly easily.

According to a copycat recipe from Taste of Home, all you'll need for Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi is a pasta pot, a pan, and the ingredients. Give the shrimp a quick sautée in some butter first. While cooking the angel hair pasta, sautée the garlic and red pepper flakes, then add wine and reduce to form the base of the sauce. Add asparagus, butter, and cream. Finally, toss in the shrimp and tomatoes, and mix all the ingredients together with the pasta.

Another variation from Cafe Delites calls for bread crumbs to make a crispy baked version, or you can try the quick 5-ingredient Shrimp Scampi recipe by Aldi. No matter how you make it, the shrimp dish is bound to please your tastebuds, but if you'd rather leave it to the experts, Olive Garden should do just fine.

Nutrition facts about Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi

Between the heavy pasta dishes and the over 675 million breadsticks served per year, Olive Garden may not seem like the best option for diners watching their carb intake. The Asiago Tortelloni Alfredo with Grilled Chicken, for example, clocks in at 1,980 calories – a majority of the calories a person should consume throughout the entire day (per Healthline).

The health value of the seafood dishes at Olive Garden are similarly debatable. The chicken and shrimp carbonara, which contains bacon in a cream sauce, contains 1,390 calories, 94 grams of fat, and over 2,000 milligrams of sodium. 

Fans of Olive Garden's Shrimp Scampi, however, will be happy to learn that the dish is among the more health-conscious options at the restaurant with only 510 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 960 milligrams of sodium. This represents ½ to ⅓ of the recommended daily fat intake, per the Cleveland Clinic, and about half of the US federal guidelines for daily sodium intake. And because they're high in protein, shrimp is one of the types of seafood you should be eating.

Shrimp Scampi saved Olive Garden's business

Although the shrimp dish is a relatively recent addition to Olive Garden's menu, its rise has been meteoric. The lower-calorie dish debuted in January 2016 when Parent company Darden Restaurants was aiming to adapt to consumer demand for healthier food (via Bloomberg|Quint). Lighter dishes, including the Shrimp Scampi, were a key part of their vision to rebound from years of low sales and poor reputation.

And it worked. In 2017, not long after Olive Garden debuted Shrimp Scampi, the dish became the top-selling item on the restaurant's whole menu, edging out the perennial winner Chicken Alfredo. Olive Garden beat back rumors of closing forever with their financial success abounding on Wall Street. During the same quarter that the scampi became its best-seller, the chain's sales tripled what analysts had predicted, which pushed Darden Restaurants' stock to its highest price in years.

However, not every healthier item that was added to the menu at that time survived. The restaurant also debuted other dishes in 2016 themed around the Mediterranean coast, including Tilapia Piccata, Citrus Chicken Sorrento, and Herb-Grilled Salmon (via Brand Eating). Of all these options, only two remain as of February 2022: The salmon and the much-vaunted shrimp scampi.