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):
Marinated Vegetable Antipasto
Piccata (lemon-based sauce for either chicken or veal dishes)
White Wine Sauces
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!