Traditional Italian food has become, well, traditionalamong Americans eating out. A close second to Chinese food as a family favorite, Italian ranks high in basic appeal. It is often a fine dining choice as well.
White-tablecloth restaurant or neighborhood eatery, the healthy find in every Italian restaurant is pasta, an excellent source of carbohydrates. (For carb-watchers, it's all about the portions.) Added to pasta is the classic tomato, most frequently cooked into a sauce. This favorite vegetable is loaded with healthy lycopene, which protects against various forms of cancer. Another health bonus is the fact that much Italian cooking uses olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat. Finally, there's the garlic, a health-promoting staple in Italian restaurants.
What to Watch
These are all good reasons to eat Italian, but there are pitfalls. Their common names are alfredo (as in fettucine) carbonara and Parmigiana.
Alfredo and carbonara are creamy sauces heavy with fat. Parmigiana dishes are breaded, fried and topped with cheese. But you can steer clear of these dishes and still eat the best of Italian while keeping the fat calories or carb grams within a healthy range.
"What's great about Italian food is that you can arrange and improvise to meet anyone's needs," says Christianne Ricchi, owner and executive chef of i Ricchi, a fine dining restaurant in Washington, D.C. "The key is everything in moderation."
At i Ricchi, Chris encourages variety through multiple small courses. Also, "share an appetizer or have appetizer-sized pasta," she advises, and adds, "Italian appetizers are usually rich in vegetables." And while light sauces on pasta are preferable to heavy cream ones, Chris suggests that diners even limit the quantity of the light sauce: You don't need much sauce to make the dish tasty, she says.
Go Healthy with These Tips
Here are other ways to go healthy with Italian:
- Choose appetizers like minestrone soup, pasta e fagioli (broth-based soup made with pasta and beans), grilled calamari, grilled eggplant or peppers. Prosciutto with melon is a good choice for carb-watchers, along with a chilled roasted tomato soup.
- Order your pasta, like linguini or spaghetti, with a tomato or a red or white clam sauce. If this is too basic for your tastes, add meatballs or some sausage, or go for the meat sauce. With sauce served on the side, you can limit the amount you use.
- Have your fish, meat or chicken entrée grilled or broiled with the sauce on the side.
- Watch out for vegetables served in sauce as well. You want them plain with lemon or herbs.
- Hold or moderate the cheese!
- For dessert, have an Italian ice or fat-free cappuccino with biscotti.