1. Nicole the waitress vs.
Dad’s theories about tipping servers
This is the first clash of the season between Nicole and Dad, and the whole family (plus the entire Olive Garden waitstaff) is sitting on the edge of their seats. Against similarly parsimonious men over the age of 50, Nicole is 5-2 when she compliments her opponent’s choice of footwear, and an impressive 7-0 when she expresses enthusiasm for the music of Steely Dan. Meanwhile, Dad is off to a red-hot start this family dining season, tipping well below 10% every time his meal takes more than eight minutes to arrive at the table. On defense, Dad has effectively shut down all opposition from Mom about his cheap tipping, waiting an average of 2.7 seconds before cutting her off and delivering a monologue about how he never expected a tip when he worked at McDonald’s in 1977. The over/under for Nicole’s tip is hovering around 10.5%. Although it’s tempting to stick with Dad’s streak of “teaching these millennials a thing or two about hard work,” scouting reports indicate that Dad has liked no fewer than twelve Steely Dan songs on the family Spotify account in the past month. We’re taking Nicole/Steely Dan and the over for this one.
2. The Five Cheese Ziti al Forno vs.
Stephanie’s sophomore semester abroad in Rome
Probably the most uneven matchup of the week. Stephanie is currently on a sixteen-meal streak of reminding the rest of us that she spent a semester in Rome and that she knows what “authentic” Italian food “really tastes like.” Her aggressive correction of Mom’s pronunciation of the word “bruschetta” was one of last season’s most lopsided blowouts, and her insistence earlier this year that we ask Pizza Hut to deliver “due pizze” instead of “two pizzas” caught the rest of the family completely flat-footed. Against an opponent like Olive Garden’s Five Cheese Ziti al Forno, we project an overwhelming 96% chance that Stephanie rolls her eyes and demands that the waitress brings her an authentic Roman Cacio e Pepe instead. The only wild card in this matchup is if Stephanie drinks two or more Watermelon Margaritas, in which case it’s 50/50 that she eats the entire Ziti al Forno, half of the kids’ chicken fingers, and falls asleep at the table.
3. $5 Watermelon Margaritas vs.
Aunt Susan’s vault of family secrets
One of the oldest matchups in family dinner history, this classic confrontation never disappoints. A tight defensive performance from Aunt Susan (one or fewer Watermelon Margaritas) should leave the vault of family secrets largely untouched. However, if Aunt Susan allows two or more Watermelon Margaritas to slip past her defensive front, we can expect the vault door to swing wide open. If Aunt Susan finishes her second drink, it’s even money that she’ll start spilling the beans about her divorce from Uncle Ted. If she hits the three margarita mark, we strongly recommend taking the over on the number of minutes Aunt Susan will spend discussing which cousins she thinks are secretly gay. If things get out of hand and enter blowout territory (4+ Watermelon Margaritas), the smart money is on getting the hell out of the Olive Garden before the 100% chance that you will be stuck driving Aunt Susan home after she reveals the names of 1-2 family members who didn’t know that they were adopted.
4. The Kids’ Menu Chicken Fingers vs. The floor
This matchup is all about the intangibles. Brandon (age 4) is currently on a five-meal streak of throwing away any piece of food that does not bear a sufficiently strong resemblance to Olaf from Frozen. This is less of a challenge on home turf, where a grilled cheese can easily be carved up to look like an animated snowman. On the road, however, it’s a wild card. According to a recent scouting report, two of the three chicken fingers pictured on Olive Garden’s online menu are vaguely Olaf-shaped, while the third could pass for Rubble from Paw Patrol. Our take? Don’t believe the hype: pick the over for the number of chicken fingers that end up on the floor. We’re hearing rumors that both Frozen and Paw Patrol are considered passé in Ms. Donaldson’s junior kindergarten class, and that all Brandon’s food must now resemble either Moana or Lego Batman.
5. The Lasagna Classico vs.
Mom’s newly-discovered “gluten sensitivity”
This is the first-ever matchup between these two formidable opponents. Mom’s “gluten sensitivity” came out of nowhere earlier this year, following a strong offseason of reading Prevention magazine and watching Dr. Oz on a daily basis. Since then, Mom’s newly-discovered condition has racked up impressive wins against Dad’s homemade sourdough loaf, Stephanie’s “100% authentic” Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, and the handful of Goldfish crackers Brandon offered her on the drive over. Of course, the book on Mom has always been that her defense instantly crumbles in the face of any kind of baked pasta opponent. Dad is currently offering 1 in 4 odds that Mom orders the lasagna and later claims that she “didn’t see” the gluten-free section of the Olive Garden menu. The best bet? Double down and wager that Mom also ignores her self-diagnosed dairy allergy and orders a slice of Seasonal Sicilian Cheesecake from the dessert menu. We all remember the same cheesecake crushing Mom’s iron-clad South Beach Diet defense of 2006, and there’s no reason to think it won’t come out on top of this clash as well.
6. Unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks vs. Everyone’s dignity
Sometimes there’s no need to overthink things. Take the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks over our collective human dignity EVERY. DAMN. TIME.