Low Calorie Italian Food: What to Choose at an Italian Restaurant

What comes to mind when you think of Italian food? Creamy pasta dishes? Pizza thick with melted cheese? Rich tasty lasagna filled with pasta, meat, and cheese? As you know all too well, these are not likely to be good choices for your waistline and possibly your health. Thankfully there are lower calorie dishes and other ways to limit calories at most Italian restaurants. Let’s take a look at some of the strategies you can employ to keep your calorie count reasonable and still enjoy your meal!



First of all, think vegetables. The entrees with lots of vegetables are more likely to be lower in calories than other dishes. What ups the calorie count very quickly for many Italian dishes, those with or without vegetables are the rich cream sauces and cheese. So in addition to vegetables, look for food items that are served with tomato-based sauces such as marinara and Neapolitan, and possibly primavera. These typically are the lower calorie choices for sauce but it all depends on how they are prepared (how much added olive oil, cream, or cheese).

Something else to keep in mind is the portion size. Pasta dishes can be huge! Choose to save aside half or more to bring home with you and you might save yourself 500 calories or more! Another way to satisfy your appetite without packing on the calories is to place a side order for a green salad or maybe sautéed or steamed vegetables. (If your meal already comes with a green salad or vegetable, consider ordering an additional side of vegetables.) Fill up on lower calorie choices, enjoy a portion of your higher calorie entree, and then bring the rest home.

You may be in a situation in which it would be difficult to bring home the leftovers. Maybe you’re traveling or simply do not have a way to keep the leftover cold till you reach home. If so, consider sharing a meal with a friend or family member.

Think carefully about any of the extras with an Italian meal. If going without bread is more than you can handle, how about having one small slice and then asking the server to remove the rest? Choose a low calorie beverage to go with your meal. Water is always a great choice but unsweetened tea or coffee or diet soda might be other possibilities. For dessert you might try a small portion of biscotti or fruit ice or just skip dessert and choose instead to have a piece of fruit at home.

What to look for on a menu (typically but not always the lower calorie choice):

Marinara Sauce

Neopolitan Sauce

Minestrone Soup

Marinated Vegetable Antipasto

Piccata (lemon-based sauce for either chicken or veal dishes)

Plain Pasta

White Wine Sauces

Biscotti

Fruit Ice

Menu items to limit or avoid:

Anything fried such as fried eggplant or zucchini

Anything with lots of cheese

Salami or other sausage

Carbonara (made with butter, egg, and bacon)

Pasta with fillings (ravioli, tortellini)

Pasta with Alfredo sauce

Gelato (ice cream)

O.K. you now have some of the general strategies to keep in mind. Let’s take a look at the specifics and how this all plays out at an actual Italian restaurant. I’ll start with The Olive Garden as an example. This restaurant may or may not be typical of the Italian restaurants where you live but it will at least give you an idea of how I scout out the best choices on a menu. Whenever possible your best bet is to review the menu from your restaurant of choice BEFORE you head out. You can often find this information online.

I’ll start with the Dinner menu instead of the Lunch menu because the portion size is typically bigger and therefore has more calories. That’s a tip right there. Enjoy your favorite restaurants for lunch rather than supper and you will save yourself calories and cash!

Next I have selected the Classic recipes rather than the appetizers, pizzas, filled pastas, beef and pork dishes, chicken, fish, or seafood that you might find at other restaurants. (For general tips on saving calories when eating out read my earlier post.) Here’s what I found: Lasagna Classico, Five Cheese Ziti all Forno, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Linguine alla Marinara, Chicken Parmigiana, Fettuccine Alfredo, Eggplant Parmigiana, Capellini Pomodoro, Spaghetti & Meatballs, and Tour of Italy (homemade lasagna, lightly breaded chicken parmigiana and creamy Alfredo). Each of these entrees comes with bread and soup or a garden salad. Wish I could share the photos. They look delicious!

My first choice of these nine items would be the Capellini Pomodoro. My second choice might be Linguini alla Marinara. I don’t know what either capellini or pomodoro mean but that wouldn’t stop me. Don’t know? Just ask! I do like the description: Roma tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil tossed with capellini (the picture suggests some sort of pasta). The website for this particular local Olive Garden Restaurant does not share the calorie and nutrient break down so I’ll go over to DietFacts.com to see what I can find. Before I learn the details, my guess is that I should think about bringing half of this dish home with me given that it is a dinner and not a lunch item.

[Update: June 2010, I now use CalorieLab.com as my primary source of information about the calorie count of restaurant food.]

O.K. I’m right on target. The average number of calories for the Capellini Pomodoro dinner entree is 644. Half of that would bring me to 322 calories! That’s good! Depending on the calorie count I’m aiming for I might be able to enjoy a slice of bread with my meal and have the salad or soup. (Half of this entree has approximately 7 grams of fat and 5 grams of dietary fiber.) Let’s see how this choice compares with some of the other possibilities. (The lunch version of this dish has 409 calories, by the way.)

Linguini alla Marinara: pasta with a zesty blend of ripe tomatoes, onions, and herbs. This dish actually has fewer calories than my first choice with 551 calories for the dinner entree. This goes to show you how hard it is to estimate calories and why it is important to learn what you can in advance.

Lasagna Classico has layers of pasta, meat sauce and mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan and romano cheese. Between the meat and the cheese, my guess is the calories will add up quickly. Unfortunately, I can’t find a calorie count for this dish.

Five cheese Ziti all Forno: this pasta has a five-cheese marinara sauce, and is baked with a layer of melted Italian cheeses. This dish is an example of one that would seem to be a good choice with respect to having a tomato-based sauce but the five-cheese addition should set off alarm bells. I would pass on this. (Can’t find the calorie count.)

Spaghetti with meat sauce looks to be standard: traditional meat sauce seasoned with garlic and herbs over spaghetti. It’s made with a tomato-based sauce so the main thing to watch out for is the portion size. The “generic” spaghetti listing at dietfacts is for a 10 ounce serving to have only 420 calories. My experience tells me that most Italian restaurants serve far more than 10 ounces but otherwise this would be a good choice. (No calorie count is given for the Olive Garden.)

Chicken Parmigiana: Parmesan-breaded chicken breasts fried and topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. The marinara sauce is a good choice but the rest is not. Watch out for anything that is breaded or fried and has additional cheese. (No calorie count.)

Fettuccine Alfredo: Parmesan cream sauce with a hint of garlic, served over fettuccine. Cream is the key word to watch out for here. I don’t have the calorie count from this particular restaurant to share but here’s what I found at another Italian restaurant. A large fettuccine Alfredo at Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria has a staggering 1800 calories per order with enough artery-clogging saturated fat for 10 people (98 grams)! The small order still has 1350 calories and 75 grams of saturated fat! My suggestion is to stay away from anything Alfredo.

Eggplant parmigiana: Lightly breaded eggplant, fried and topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese. This is another dish to question because of the breading, frying, and cheese. No calorie count is given for the Olive Garden but I did find a similar dish at the Spaghetti Factory with 670 calories and 17 grams of saturated fat.

Spaghetti and Meatballs: Traditional meat sauce over spaghetti with meatballs (or Italian sausage). My guess is that the meatballs will serve up somewhat more calories than the same dish with just meat sauce. I would skip the Italian sausage. No calorie count for the Olive Garden but a similar dish at Monical’s Pizza which has spaghetti noodles served with marinara sauce and topped with 3 meatballs has 680 calories.

The last dish on the menu is for Tour of Italy: Homemade lasagna, lightly breaded chicken parmigiana and creamy fettuccine. I would stay away from most blended meals with a sample from three or more entrees. They tend to be bigger. And each individual item has the same issues as pointed out earlier.

Making your selection at an Italian restaurant isn’t easy. Just keep the tips I’ve shared here in mind, watch your portion size, and whenever possible, explore the menu choices ahead of time. Choose well and enjoy!

  • chloe May 8, 2012, 8:21 pm

    No worries, it’s okay. Hope you had a great time with your sister. And thanks so much for the reply – it’s really appreciated.

    No you didn’t miss the outing. You replied just in time – it’s tomorrow night.

    By the way, could i ask also, what would you choose out of the main (meat) courses?
    http://www.pastafresca.com/Menu.php

    Or what about the pastas?
    http://www.pastafresca.com/Menu-Pasta.php

    Thanks again for your help!

    • Lori May 9, 2012, 5:21 am

      Oh! I didn’t see the additional links on the side of the menu.

      Regardless of which section/selection I am choosing from I always go with the dishes having lots of veggies. It is the secret to staying slim, trim, and healthy. Having said that I rarely choose a pasta dish as much as I might like one. Pasta calories add up fast! But when I do I go with a tomato-based sauce. I might choose the ALLA VEGETERIANA but some of the others in the tomato sauce might be good as well. With pasta dishes in most restaurants you will want to limit yourself to 1/2 or less depending on what you get served and how much you can eat. Restaurant entrees such as these are often 1,000 calories or more.

      As for the meat choices, I would go with the salmon (I know it’s fish!) FILETTO DI SALMONE and watch portion size and the potatoes. The strictly meat dishes look like they will likely be very high calorie!

      It is a guessing game when no calorie or other nutrition information is provided.

      Enjoy,

      Lori

  • chloe May 5, 2012, 7:41 pm

    Hi Lori,

    I just discovered your website and it’s very interesting and informative! :)

    Btw. What would you suggest as the healthiest, low calorie options from this italian restaurant – apart from any salads? We’ll be going there for an early Mothers Day celebration.

    http://www.pastafresca.com/Menu-Starter.php

    • Lori May 8, 2012, 7:42 am

      Hi Chloe,

      Sorry for the delay in responding. We had visitors from out of town (one of my sisters!).

      Did I miss your outing? Looks like a great restaurant. I would select the CRESPELLE VEGETARIANE but I might ask about how it is prepared. Do the added bread crumbs have a lot of oil/fat? I would also be mindful of the serving size.

      Hope I wasn’t too late.

      Lori

  • Emily July 4, 2011, 5:27 am

    Thanks very much. What is the best choice out of this restaurant?http://www.sofiafrankston.com.au/menu_salads.php
    I’m going out tomorrow and I would like an informed choice. Thanks and I can’t choose and salad!

    • Lori July 4, 2011, 3:18 pm

      Hi Emily,

      It looks like the Flounder and Vegetables might be a good choice. Be sure to ask how it is prepared. Can the fish be grilled or baked instead of breaded and/or fried? The same goes for the vegetables. Breaded and fried is not good. If a sauce is to be added to the vegetables ask for it to be on the side.

      A less expensive choice might be the Minestrone Soup with a bowl of vegetables.

      Enjoy!

      Lori

      • Emily July 4, 2011, 4:39 pm

        Thanks for that. What about out of the Pastas? How many calories would you expect to be in the Spaghetti neopolitana? (they are very large servings!)
        Thanks so much!

        • Lori July 5, 2011, 9:26 am

          Emily,

          Pasta dishes can add up to a LOT of calories very quickly. An “average” woman on a maintenance diet only needs about 6 servings of breads, cereals, or grain foods (pasta) in an entire day. A serving is 1/2 cup cooked. Many pasta dishes served in restaurants can easily exceed 3 cups or more of cooked pasta. Calories for the whole dish can exceed 1,000 calories easily. (The nutrition information does not seem to be readily available for this restaurant so this is just a guess based on previous studies of the average restaurant in the U.S. This is beginning to change for the better thankfully!)

          If you want pasta I would ask for a carton for the extra right up front when you order. Then when your entree is served, gauge the amount that might be appropriate for you and your needs. Save aside 1/2 to 2/3 to take home before you even begin.

          Hope this helps,

          Lori

  • Donna November 18, 2010, 2:08 pm

    Great information, Thank you!
    What would you suggest I order from this Italian restaurant…we are going Saturday.
    http://www.marcositalian.com/dinner.htm
    Thanks for any tips.
    DH

    • Lori November 18, 2010, 3:24 pm

      Hi Donna,

      Wow! The Italian restaurant you will be going to sounds like it has some fabulous food. However, my guess is that the calorie counts for most of the items on the list will be high!

      If I were going I would choose the Salmon Lustrato. (An 8 oz. filet of salmon broiled in a honey maple glaze served with zucchini, summer squash, sweet red peppers, and rice pilaf.)

      Even with this dish you will have to use your judgement with respect to what would be an appropriate portion size. An 8 oz serving of fish is a clue that the entree may be oversized (as the other entrees seem to be also). Salmon is a lean protein source. Even so, 8 oz. would give you over 400 calories just for the fish! 2-4 oz. for a portion is plenty on a low calorie diet!

      If your goal is to have say 400 calories or less for the entree alone, my guess is that you will want to take home half the meal to eat later.

      Another selection I might consider is the House Salad.

      Baby arugula, radicchio, red oak leaf, mustard greens, grape tomatoes, imported Italian cheeses, black olives, red onions, cucumbers, dried cranberries, Mandarin oranges and walnuts.

      But go easy on the cheese (again portion size) and use any dressing sparingly!

      Hope this helps. Do enjoy your meal!

      Lori