When I think of Italian-American food, large portions come to mind. Chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Carraba's, and Maggiano's Little Italy have trained me to expect a gigantic serving of pasta swimming in a sea of sauce and finished with a mountain of ooey, gooey cheese. And while I know it's not authentic, I'm not exactly complaining because I happen to love saucy, cheesy dishes.
In 2019, Olive Garden released a Giant Italian Classics menu featuring a foot-long piece of chicken Parmesan and a single meatball that weighed a staggering 12 ounces--that's 3/4 of a pound! While those two dishes have since shrunk back to normal size, Olive Garden giant stuffed shells stuck around. It's now a staple on their classic entree menu, and one bite will have you hooked: four-cheese stuffed shells served up in rich marinara and cheesy alfredo sauces. It's a delicious meatless dish that the whole family will enjoy.
We love these stuffed shells so much, we decided to make them at home. It turns out the recipe is as easy as it is delicious.
How to Make Olive Garden Giant Stuffed Shells
We took to Olive Garden's website to try to find the ingredients, but they're not giving up their secrets that easily. So we picked up a bowl of this pasta and gave it the old-fashioned taste test to determine how to make this copycat recipe. We were able to fill in a few blanks using the allergen and nutrition information on the website, so we knew that Olive Garden giant stuffed shells contain dairy, egg, wheat, gluten, soy, and sulfites. The dairy is in the cheese stuffing and alfredo sauce, and the egg and gluten are in the pasta noodles. We also learned that almost every pasta sauce contains garlic and onion, so we added those ingredients to the list.
From our taste test, we determined the four-cheese filling was probably ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, and Romano cheeses. We whipped up a test batch and tweaked the quantities of each until it matched our taste test. From there, we put together a simple marinara sauce and alfredo sauce that hit similar flavor notes to Olive Garden's. Rest assured that, if you don't want to make everything from scratch, you can buy store-bought sauces to save time.
Finally, the dish was topped with breadcrumbs and parsley, and we knew we had to pick up some giant shells. They were labeled as "jumbo" shells at our local grocery store.
Are Olive Garden Giant Stuffed Shells Vegetarian?
The stuffed shells at Olive Garden are one of my favorite vegetarian options on the menu. Keep in mind that it's only considered vegetarian for those who consume dairy. The dish is not vegan because it contains quite a bit of dairy between all the cheese and the alfredo sauce.
This meatless meal is so filling, even omnivores won't miss the meat. That said, When you order the giant stuffed shells at Olive Garden, they do give you the option to add sauteed shrimp or grilled chicken. These additions are a great way to amp up the protein, if you feel as though you're lacking for the day. At home, feel free to do the same, cooking the shrimp and chicken separately and adding it to the top of the pasta when plating.
What Type of Pasta to Use for Olive Garden Giant Stuffed Shells
To make this recipe, we used the largest pasta shells we could find: A box of Barilla jumbo shells. In Italy, these shells are called Conchiglie because they resemble conch shells. We felt lucky to find them, though, because we picked up the very last box on the shelf! If you can't find the shells but you still want to make this recipe, feel free to substitute another fillable pasta. Manicotti or cannelloni work particularly well as a substitute. In a pinch, you can buy lasagna noodles, boil them until they're tender, and roll them around the cheese filling.
No matter what you do, don't overcook the pasta for this dish. If the shells cook too long, they'll tear and break down when you try to stuff them. It's important to remove them to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. You'll also want to drain the pasta well before stuffing them, or your stuffed shells can turn out watery.
Olive Garden Giant Stuffed Shells Copycat Recipe
- 1 box jumbo shells
- 1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
- 1-1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup shredded Romano cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 24-ounce jar marinara sauce (or use the recipe to follow)
- 1/2 cup Alfredo sauce (store-bought or use the recipe to follow)
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs
- chopped parsley for garnish
For the Stuffed Shells:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Cook the jumbo shells in salted boiling water according to the package instructions. When finished, remove to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, Romano cheese, and salt. Using a spoon, fill the shells with the cheese mixture.
- Spread the marinara sauce out on the bottom of a 13x9 baking dish. Nestle the stuffed shells into the marinara and top them with the alfredo sauce. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes, until the marinara sauce is bubbling and the shells are warmed through.
- Remove the foil and sprinkle the bread crumbs over the shells. Bake, uncovered, for an additional 10 minutes, until the bread crumbs and toasted.
- Sprinkle the chopped parsley over the baked shells and serve immediately.
Copycat Olive Garden Alfredo sauce - makes 3 cups
- In a medium saucepan, heat the 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat until it melts. Add 2 cloves minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 2 tablespoons AP flour, 1-1/2 cup whole milk, 1-1/2 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, and 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese. Cook until the sauce simmers and becomes thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Copycat Olive Garden marinara - makes 3 cups
- In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add 1 small diced yellow onion, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon dried basil, 1/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning, and 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper and cook for 2 minutes, until softened. Stir in 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, 1/2 cup water, and 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook for 25 minutes.