7 Healthy Foods to Order at an Italian Restaurant

Updated: Feb. 20, 2020

Avoid calorie bombs the next time you visit an Italian restaurant while still enjoying delicious cuisine.

Along the Mediterranean shores of Italy, you can find some of the healthiest food and eating habits in the world. Unfortunately, many Italian restaurants forgo their cultural heritage and instead serve up large plates of overcooked noodles drowned in butter, cheese, and cream sauces and huge slices of pizza with a one-inch-thick coating of mozzarella cheese. But there are ways to indulge in your favorite Italian cuisine when dining out, says Fiorella DiCarlo RD, a registered dietitian and author of Crostini & Win: Healthy Entertaining Italian Style.

The first hurdle is the overflowing basket of bread. Even if you don’t plan on eating it, simply having it on the table in front of you can be an irresistible temptation, she says.

“Mindless eating is one of the biggest challenges to healthy eating but you can’t eat it if it’s not there,” she says. “Consider asking your server not to bring the bread basket out.”

Next up are appetizers. Don’t be fooled by the “salad” designation on the antipasto, which is primarily cured meats and fatty cheeses, she says, adding you should avoid appetizers that are fried as well.

Finally, pasta! Pasta dishes are often people’s favorite foods and the reason they head to an Italian restaurant but be aware that many Italian restaurants treat pasta as a preliminary course. Instead, if pasta is what you love, make it your main course, she says.

Lastly, watch the wine. What’s an Italian meal without a glass or two of vino? “Alcohol causes more mindless eating and is a source of empty calories and sugar,” she says. If you’re going to drink, sip slowly, alternate with water, and limit yourself to one or two servings, she says.

So what should you order? Here are some healthy food choices to keep in mind while you’re perusing the menu:

Start with a light soup such as pasta fagioli or minestrone

Skip cream-based soups and go for ones made from broth. Full of beans and vegetables, a small bowl of these soups will take the edge off your hunger in a hurry, DiCarlo says.

A Caesar salad is a nice way to start your meal

The anchovies used in the dressing (authentic restaurants will also lay whole fillets on the salad) are one of the best sources of healthy omega-3 fats. You can ask for the dressing on the side and use a light hand when dressing your salad to limit the calories, she suggests.

Choose red pasta sauces like the red clam, marinara, and vegetable sauces

Those are better for you than white cream or butter-based sauces, she says. Not sure about the ingredients? It never hurts to ask your server. In addition, many restaurants have sections or symbols on the menu to designate lighter choices.

Look for piccata, cacciatore, and marsala fish, chicken, or beef dishes

These are usually high in protein and lower in fat and calories than, say, a traditional lasagne or eggplant parmigiana, she says.

Choose seafood that’s been cooked in olive oil or wine broths

Don’t be tempted by the deep-fried calamari or scampi—anything breaded and fried will be harder on your health.

Order fruit as dessert

Not only is this true to the Italian culture—it’s traditional to end a meal with a light fruit dish—but it’s much healthier than the cheesecake or ice cream many restaurants offer, DiCarlo says. “My favorite Italian dessert is limoncello-drenched berries with whipped mascarpone cheese,” she says.

Have sparkling water or one glass of wine

Wine can offer some health benefits—as long as you stick to one serving (and that’s not a giant glassful!), DiCarlo says. Skip the bottle to help you keep track of how much you’ve had. “Another option is to skip the alcohol altogether and order seltzer water to lower caloric intake and you won’t have to worry about a hangover,” she says. Next, check out 25 ways to order healthy at any restaurant

Source: Fiorella DiCarlo RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and author of Crostini & Win: Healthy Entertaining Italian Style.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest