HOW TO EAT HEALTHY IN ITALIAN RESTAURANTS
by Joanne V. Lichten, RD, PhD
When we think of Italian foods, the foods that often come to mind are pasta and pizza.
A moderate portion of pasta, by itself, is low in fat and relatively low in calories.
Additions such as sauce, cheese, meats, and oil determine if a meal remains low fat.
Olive oil is one of the most common staples in Italian cooking. It is often considered
a healthy fat because it contains no cholesterol and is high in monounsaturated fats. Keep
in mind that, like other oils, it still has 120 calories per tablespoon. To eat lean,
avoid excessive amounts of meat, cheese, fried foods or those foods that have liberal
amounts of oil added.
Appetizers, Antipasto, & Salads
- Consider squid, mussels, or clams in a herb wine sauce. Stay away from fried appetizers
such as fried eggplant and fried cheese.
- Inquire as to what comes with appetizers of Carpaccio or Prosciutto ham. These thin
slices of beef, fish, or ham are very high in fat but are often served in small portions.
If these offerings are a must, enjoy them instead of a meat entré and ask for the
Carpaccio or Prosciutto to be served with vegetables or fruit such as melon. Often
drizzled with olive oil or served with mayonnaise, this plate is lower in fat if eaten
plain or with lemon juice.
- Minestrone and Bean Soups are often prepared low fat and are a good way to fill up prior
to a meal.
- Request Bruschetta to be prepared with very little oil. This oil-ladened toast is best
enjoyed in small quantities. The same advice is appropriate when restaurants offer you
bread with a dish of oil for dipping - use little or no oil and keep your bread portion
- Order a vegetable salad with balsamic vinegar or with the salad dressing on the side.
Caesar salad is best avoided because of its high fat ingredients including eggs, Parmesan
cheese, and Italian dressing.
- Watch the high fat additions of olives, pine nuts, cheese, and oil. Whenever possible,
ask for your meal to be prepared without these ingredients or in limited amounts.
- Pasta noodles, made of mostly flour and water, are very low in fat. Freshly prepared
pasta noodles may have eggs as an added ingredient. This will add about 50 mg of
cholesterol per cup and a few grams of fat. Some restaurants offer dried pastas, made
without egg, for patrons who are closely monitoring their cholesterol.
- Each half cup portion of pasta has only 100 calories but serving sizes are often 2 cups.
Frequently, appetizer portions can be ordered instead of a large entree portion; or you
can request a doggie bag
- Here's a description of the most common pastas:
- Straight (thinnest to widest): Capellini (Angel hair), Vermicelli, Spaghetti, Linguine,
- Tubular: Mostaccioli, Penne, Rigatoni, Ziti, Cannelloni (stuffed), Manicotti (stuffed)
- Other Shapes: Capellitti (little hats), Farfalle (bowties), Fusilli (long pasta which is
spiral shaped), Gnocchi (little dumplings), Ravioli (stuffed & usually square),
Rotelle (corkscrew spirals), Shells
Meats & Cheese
- Chicken, seafood, and veal are the leanest "meats" as long as they are not
fried. Pancetta (Italian bacon) and sausage are best avoided due to their high fat
- Request for the meat to be steamed or grilled instead of sautéed or fried even if the
menu suggests otherwise.
- Choose "pasta with meat" rather than an entré serving of meat. In addition,
choose a low fat sauce such as a tomato sauce.
- Also, ask that "no oil" be added to the preparation of the "meats";
wine or broth can often be substituted. Request that the skin be removed from the poultry
- Avoid dishes with excessive cheese. Instead of pasta stuffed with cheese, choose pasta
with a sprinkling of cheese.
- Partially skimmed cheeses are not as low fat as you might think. Occasionally, you may
find dishes prepared with partially skimmed cheeses; while lower in fat, they are not
- Avoid Parmigiana meals. Parmigiana refers to food that is floured, fried, and topped
with a marinara sauce and cheese. These dishes are very high in fat whether made from
chicken, veal, or eggplant. Instead, you can request the meat to be grilled and topped
with a marinara sauce and cheese. Or consider ordering an appetizer (or luncheon) portion
of your favorite parmigiana instead of the entré portion. This option is often available
even if it is not suggested on the menu.
- Ask for a lower calorie/fat sauce. Even if the menu states a particular sauce you can
always substitute a healthier sauce.
- If you want the higher fat sauce, ask them to put on less or request the sauce to be
served on the side.
- Order Pasta Primavera (pasta with vegetables) prepared with a tomato sauce or very
little oil instead of the typical butter or Alfredo sauce.
- When ordering a side order of pasta, consider asking for no sauce to be added. Use the
sauce from the meat entréé to mix with the pasta instead.
- Know your sauces:
- Alfredo Sauce - a very high fat cream sauce prepared with butter, heavy cream and
- Bolognese Sauce - a cream or tomato-based sauce with a variety of meats, vegetables, and
- Carbonara Sauce - made with butter, eggs, bacon, sausage, parmesan cheese, and cream.
- Meat Sauce - a tomato sauce with added ground beef or sausage. Calories and fat grams
are dependent upon the amount of meat added; sausage is higher in calories and fat than
- Pesto Sauce - a very high fat sauce prepared from fresh basil, pine nuts, parmesan
cheese, and oil. If you want a dish prepared with pestorequest that it be prepared
with "just a little."
- Red Clam Sauce - consists of oil, tomatoes, and clams.
- Tomato Sauces (such as marinara, spicy marinara, and pomodori) are typically the lowest
fat sauces. Caution: creamy tomato sauce is much higher in fat and calories.
- White Clam Sauce (Vongole) - made of butter, oil, white wine and clams.
- Hold the oil. Upscale Italian restaurants offer dishes of pasta combined with a variety
of meat, chicken, seafood, and/or vegetables. These combinations are generally mixed with
a sauce or simply with flavored oil. Ask for a tomato sauce or very little oil. Many
restaurants will use broth instead of oil to add moisture and flavor with the addition of
very few calories.
From Dining Lean, by Joanne V. Lichten, RD, PhD. Copyright © 1998 by Joanne V.
Lichten, RD, PhD. Excerpted by arrangement with Joanne V. Lichten, RD, PhD. $16.95.
Available in local bookstores, or call 888-431-LEAN, or click here.