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Restaurant 101: Italian

The menus at Italian restaurants can sometimes be tricky to navigate. Though most of you might already know that fettuccine alfredo isn’t the best option, you may still wonder what it is exactly that makes it unhealthy. Is it the carbs from the pasta? The fat from the cream? Both? What do I look for when ordering at an Italian restaurant? We’ve got answers to help you eat healthy when dining Italian.

What to Do Before Ordering Italian

There are a couple of general rules to keep in mind when you crack open a menu in an Italian eatery.

  1. Dairy products are one of the biggest reasons that Italian dishes can soar in calories and fat. This includes cheese, cream-based sauces and butter. Most restaurants use full-fat varieties of dairy products, because they’re easier to cook with and more satisfying to the customer. When ordering, choose dishes with tomato-based sauces and ask for half the amount of cheese to cut back on calories and fat.
  2. Keep an eye out for any nutritious substitutions the restaurant offers. For example, look to see whether the menu includes whole wheat pasta or whole wheat pizza crust. Italian restaurants are increasingly offering options to suit many diets, like quinoa pasta and dairy-free cheese.

Italian Appetizers: Think Veggies

Pick: Bruschetta, vegetarian antipasto, minestrone, salad, bread with olive oil and vinegar

Use the appetizer course as an opportunity to have a serving of vegetables:

  • Bruschetta is a nutritious option that’s almost always vegan and low in fat.
  • Antipasto can also be packed full of veggies and healthy fats from olive oil. Choose the vegetarian option to avoid extra fat and sodium from the ham and salami used in the traditional version.
  • Minestrone is a good soup option because it’s broth-based and contains beans and vegetables. 
  • Green salads are always a healthy option when paired with a vinaigrette dressing.

Bread and butter are sometimes served as a standard, no-charge appetizer at Italian restaurants, though bread and olive oil are more typical. While a little slab of butter might not seem unhealthy, one tablespoon actually contains 7 grams of saturated fat. To give you perspective, the recommended daily intake for most people is less than 20 grams per day. This means one tablespoon of butter has more than a third of your daily intake. If you’re served butter with your bread, make a healthy substitution by asking for a side of olive oil and vinegar instead. Or skip the bread course entirely to cut back on overall calories.

Skip: Anything fried, caprese, Caesar salad, garlic bread

Doing Pasta Right

Pasta can be turned into a healthier entree with a few substitutions.

  1. Choose a lighter sauce. As a general rule of thumb, avoid any dairy-based pasta sauces. This includes Alfredo, cheese, vodka, white or any sauce with the word “cream” in it. Opt for a tomato-based sauce without cream. Good options include marinara, meat sauce and red sauce. You can also request that the pasta be tossed in olive oil, basil and a light sprinkling of Parmesan. Pesto can be a healthy option when used in proper amounts. Pine nuts are full of good fats, but Parmesan cheese can take the fat count over the top. Ask for light pesto or pesto on the side to mix in yourself.
  2. Check out the pasta options. If whole wheat pasta is available, ask for it. Whole wheat pasta contains more fiber, which helps you feel full longer. Meanwhile, ravioli is usually stuffed with cheese and can be high in saturated fat. If you choose to indulge with ravioli once in a while, ask the restaurant to toss it with olive oil and basil, to avoid extra fat from another sauce.
  3. Don’t forget lean proteins and veggiesLean proteins like chicken and seafood are go-to healthy options in Italian restaurants. Meatballs are usually made with any combination of beef, pork or veal. This would make meatballs more appropriate for a once-in-a-while treat. Skip the sausage option, as this usually has large amounts of sodium and preservatives. Instead, choose a pasta dish that includes several vegetables. This will increase the amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals in your meal. Fiber can help prevent your body’s absorption of fats, which is useful when eating a meal high in fat.

Pizza and More

In general, pizza is best saved for a cheat-day indulgence. However, you can still make substitutions to get the most nutrition per slice. Choose lean protein toppings like chicken instead of the traditional pepperoni, ham or sausage. Vegetarian pizzas are a great option because they’re full of vegetables and don’t contain any extra saturated fat from meat. Keep in mind, cheese itself is full of protein so extra meat toppings are not always necessary. If you spy whole wheat pizza crust anywhere on the menu, ask for it.

For chicken entrees, choose cacciatore, which is a tomato-based sauce. Skip the Parmigiana and Milanese, as they’re usually loaded with extra cheese and breading. Piccata and Marsala can be healthier options if they’re made with olive oil instead of butter.

Finally, with Italian restaurants, it’s important to be mindful of portion sizes. Some restaurants will allow you to order a lunch portion. Or you can ask for a to-go box at the beginning of the meal and save half of your entree for the next day’s lunch or dinner. Either of these tricks will save you money, and because the spices and acidity in tomato-based sauces have more time to permeate the meal ingredients, Italian meals often taste even better the next day.

Bobby is the community and social media manager at Zipongo. He has a degree in nutrition and dietetics and previously worked as a health educator.

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