It's almost Valentine's Day, and nothing says classic romance like sharing a big plate of pasta.
But not every town is lucky enough to have a red-sauce joint of its own. For many this Friday, that special spaghetti dinner will be shared at their favorite Italian-ish chain restaurant.
Olive Garden and Buca di Beppo are two of America's most popular Italian-American restaurant chains. So for this Valentine's Day, Business Insider sent me and Priscilla Zhu, retail's visual features fellow, out on a carb-filled mission to eat similar meals at both and find out which is better.
Here's which pasta place is more worth your dough.
On a rainy Monday morning, we took the subway to the Olive Garden in Times Square, New York. Olive Garden has hundreds of locations across America.
We entered a gloomy, dimly lit lower level and were directed to a long, narrow escalator.
The elevator took us several stories up to the main dining area.
Upstairs was actually remarkably spacious, bright, and comfortable, if sterile. The expansive windows had an incredible view of Times Square.
Here and there, there were pictures of Italy on the wall. Otherwise, this Olive Garden could have been a generic cafeteria.
We were overwhelmed by the massive menu, which included lunch specials. Eventually, we settled on two lemonades, an appetizer sampler, soup and salad, a Tour of Italy, and a chocolate brownie lasagna for dessert.
Our soup, salad, and breadsticks came out first. They looked kind of sad. But before we could say "soggy," our appetizers came out, too.
The sampler ($17.29) comes with a choice of three appetizers. We chose calamari, mozzarella sticks, and lasagna fritta.
I was surprised by how good the calamari tasted. Although tiny, they were crispy enough and not too tough.
They were salty, but the tangy marinara mitigated their salty bite.
Lasagna fritta is fried lasagna. It's not very Italian as far as I'm aware, and to pretend otherwise feels disingenuous. It's also embarrassing to say out loud.
It was as weird as you'd expect fried lasagna to be, but surprisingly, I didn't hate it.
There was plenty of creamy ricotta inside to contrast with the crispy, doughy exterior. However, I'm not sold on the texture of fried pasta.
The mozzarella sticks were more like mozzarella rectangles.
They were lightly breaded outside and melty on the inside.
The gooey cheese gave us everything we wanted from a mozzarella stick.
Olive Garden's salad ($10.99 with soup) is a pretty standard house salad with romaine lettuce, croutons, and an assortment of basic vegetables, all drenched in Italian dressing.
It's unlimited, which is a bonus for some. But a bite of the salad might have revealed why Olive Garden just gives it away.
There's pretty much nothing of interest or value in the salad. It's like eating water.
The zuppa toscana was largely the same story.
It was simultaneously watery and oversalted. Priscilla said she'd expected it to be creamier. There were also mushy bits of bacon fat floating around.
The massive chunks of potato were unwieldy and tasted like they'd been tossed in as an afterthought.
As we waited for our main course, we went for Olive Garden's most beloved staple: the breadstick (free!).
They, too, are light as air and come with endless refills.
But these oily, lightly seasoned breadsticks are somehow endlessly eatable.
Give me a basket of these and a cup of hot marinara, and I'll be happy as a clam in linguine.
Olive Garden's lemonades were surprisingly good. (They cost $4.75, and Olive Garden calls them "limonatas," but I had to draw the line somewhere.)
I got kiwi melon and Priscilla got blueberry. These lightly carbonated, fruity drinks were the perfect amount of sweet.
They were our favorite part of the meal.
Finally, our Tour of Italy ($26.79) arrived: chicken parmesan, alfredo pasta, and lasagna.
We divvied up the goods.
For the hefty price tag, the portions were pretty meager. The tour was a series of disappointment after disappointment.
The fettuccine alfredo was just creamy pasta. Though not quite good, it was alright.
But the chicken parmesan actually tasted bad.
It was dry, overcooked, and oversalted, and neither the tomato sauce nor the cheese added much flavor.
Thankfully, the lasagna was pleasantly average. It had neither offensive nor outstanding flavors. It just was.
That made it far superior to its compatriots. I'd be satisfied with this lasagna if I were a college student and it was served at my dining hall.
That's not saying much, though. College me had really low standards for food. If it tasted bad, I just doused it in spicy sauce. Sadly, I didn't have that option here.
From the outside, it may look like tiramisu. But on the inside, it's pure American sugar death.
On the ninth day, someone woke up and said, "but what if brownies were lasagna?" Thus, the chocolate brownie lasagna ($10.49) was born.
The layers of frosting are thankfully not just sugar and butter, but sugar and cream cheese.
The result is a cloying bite of sweet with a touch of sour and a hint of existential despair.
Priscilla and I had the exact same reaction to this confounded concoction: "What the heck?"
After we'd tried a bit of everything, our stomachs were left feeling queasy. But we still went back for some more calamari.
The meal, however, perked up at the end when the mints arrived. We stuffed our pockets like greedy children and waddled our way home.
The next day, we broke out our umbrellas and made our way to Buca di Beppo, also in Times Square.
This Buca was situated on the third floor of a building with a Planet Hollywood in it.
Even though it was nearly 1 pm when we arrived, the place was nearly empty.
It looked like the kind of red-sauce restaurant you dream of eating at when you're an immigrant kid whose parents don't know what spaghetti is.
The walls were plastered with posters of Italian film stars, old news clippings, and other memorabilia.
The ceiling was covered with empty wine bottles, all over which previous guests had scribbled messages.
We ordered soup and salad, lasagna, and chicken parmesan from the one-page lunch menu, as well as an appetizer platter and tiramisu off the dinner menu.
After a while, the waiter came out with our soup and salad, lasagna, and chicken parm with fettuccine alfredo.
The soup of the day ($12.00 with salad) was tomato basil. Compared to Olive Garden's watery mess, this looked creamy and promising.
But although it was rich and tart, it was also saltier than Leonardo DiCaprio after his latest Oscar loss.
Unlike Olive Garden, Buca's salad doesn't come with endless refills.
It comes with slightly nicer ingredients and presentation, but otherwise it's largely the same deal: greens, dressing, and a dash of color.
Soon enough, our waiter ferried out a giant plate of our appetizers: the Buca Trio Platter ($35). Buca, you're not fooling anyone with those cast iron pans.
But the calamari won over the skeptic in me.
It was crispy outside and soft inside, with a juicier, more flavorful bite than Olive Garden's calamari.
The spicy shrimp was also surprisingly good.
It was crunchy and garlicky with the perfect amount of spicy.
If I thought Olive Garden's mozzarella rectangles were weird, Buca went the extra mile and gave us mozzarella triangles.
But the proof is in the pull.
Oily, lightly battered skin cracked apart to reveal dense, elastic mozzarella that just kept going ...
... and going ...
... and going.
We moved onto the chicken parmesan and fettuccine alfredo ($16).
Our disastrous "tour of Italy" at the Garden had left us with low expectations.
But wrongfully so. Buca's alfredo is denser, creamier, and altogether tastier than its counterpart at Olive Garden.
The chicken parmesan also outdid its hockey puck of a predecessor.
It was tender, juicy, and cheesy, with a delicate layer of crispy breading.
It was easily the best main on the table.
The lasagna ($15) was a different story. It came with a thick hat of mysterious white stuff we assumed was cheese.
But the cheese and the pasta were dry and dense. They tasted like they had been reheated from frozen.
However, it was saved by the lip-smacking meat sauce, which every immigrant child whose parents can't cook spaghetti dreams of.
Speaking of spaghetti, we couldn't help ourselves. So, we ordered a plate of it ($15).
On top of the sprawling mound of spaghetti was the biggest meatball I had ever seen.
But to be honest, the spaghetti was more appealing on the plate than it was in my mouth.
The meatball, while tender, juicy, and very large, didn't taste like much of anything. It could have benefited from some of the salt in the tomato bisque.
The tomato sauce, too, was lacking flavor. After the impressive meat sauce on the lasagna, I'd expected more.
We finished up our meal with a family-sized serving of tiramisu ($18), or as Olive Garden would call it, espresso cake lasagna.
Like everything else in this meal, the tiramisu was insanely rich. The mascarpone cheese tasted like butter.
Priscilla and I agreed that we wished the layers of espresso-soaked cake were thicker. But, overall, we were pleased that the tiramisu wasn't overpoweringly sweet.
At Buca, we were impressed by the plentiful pasta, impressive appetizers, and warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Priscilla's takeaway: "This is what I was imagining when you told me we were going to try 'Italian' restaurants."
As we packed our leftovers into takeout tins, our takeaway was clear. Given the choice between Olive Garden and Buca di Beppo, we'd choose the second in a heartbeat.