It’s easy to see why, as rapper Post Malone said recently tonight’s show Jimmy hosts Fallon as he celebrates “every major life milestone” at the Olive Garden.
Italian restaurants have a welcoming atmosphere and a menu full of comfort food — what’s not to like?
But Italian restaurant food is often “loaded with fat and calories,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD So does this mean you have to give up your favorite dining spots to stay healthy?
Nope — we’ve rounded up healthy meals to order at an Italian restaurant (with a few menu items to avoid).
What are the healthy options at Italian restaurants?
Navigating the menu at an Italian restaurant can be a bit daunting, but Giancoli uses a trick to help zero in on the healthy fare: Look for the vegetables.
“As with any restaurant, the more veg-bag meals you order, the better,” she says.
Vegetables help fill you up without a ton of extra calories — and you don’t have to settle for plain old steamed vegetables.
“Sauteed spinach and garlic in a little olive oil is both delicious and healthy,” adds Giancoli. “Just make sure you tell them to go light on the oil.”
Here are seven more healthy Italian dishes you can enjoy without ruining your healthy eating goals (in moderation, of course).
1. Fried Calamari
Fried calamari, aka squid, can be a calorie-laden appetizer — but its grilled counterpart can be a healthier option.
Unprepared calamari clocks in at just 99 calories and 17 grams of protein in a 4-ounce serving.
Of course, calamari is often drizzled with oil when grilled, which adds extra calories — so be sure to request that the chef go easy on the oil.
Bruschetta offers a balance of macronutrients: carbohydrates (bread), fresh vegetables (tomatoes), and healthy fats (olive oil).
Again, tell them to go easy on the oil — olive oil “has a lot of calories, so it’s easy to overdo it without realizing it,” says Giancoli.
3. Caprese salad
While fresh mozzarella in a caprese salad packs a calorie punch — 72 calories per ounce — tomatoes and sweet basil balance it out. And—you guessed it—try to limit olive oil to keep the calorie count low.
4. Oysters in white wine
Like calamari, oysters also provide plenty of protein — 27 grams in a 4-ounce serving.
And even though white wine sauce is often made with butter, Giancoli says it’s still a healthy option because you typically don’t polish off the entire bowl of sauce: “As long as you’re not licking every drop or soaking up the sauce. Bread, you’re good.”
Wait – gnocchi?! You might be surprised to see these pasta dumplings on the “good” list, but it depends on what kind of gnocchi you order.
Gnocchi can be “a pretty heavy dish,” Giancoli notes — especially if made with ricotta cheese or topped with pesto.
The trick, she says, is to order the potato gnocchi — it’s made with fewer ingredients, and has about 250 calories and 5 grams of protein per 1-cup serving.
Order with Cheka sauce if available, and — you guessed it — ask them to go light on the oil.
“Ordering a meat-filled charcuterie board is a smart move,” says Giancoli, even though it’s all meat and cheese.
The reason: You usually portion it as an appetizer, so you don’t load up on fat and calories before your entree arrives.
Minestrone is one of the healthiest soup options at Italian restaurants because “you get a ton of vegetables with a little pasta,” says Giancoli.
An eight-ounce serving of Olive Garden’s broth-based minestrone has just 110 calories and one gram of fat, making it an ideal option to help fill you up before the main course.
What foods should I avoid at Italian restaurants?
Rule number one for Italian restaurants: If it’s fried or made with cream, it’s probably not the healthiest option. That said, sometimes the words on the menu can deceive you.
Here’s what to look out for when you order.
1. Mozzarella sticks
“They’re just packets of fat,” Giancoli says. Need we say more?
2. Eggplant Parmesan
Sure, eggplant is a healthy food that contains potassium, niacin and other nutrients — but in most Italian restaurants, this dish is served deep-fried and covered in cheese.
“You don’t necessarily have to avoid it completely,” Giancoli says. “Just order it as an appetizer and have a few slices instead of a meal.”
(Or you can always make a healthy eggplant parmesan at home.)
3. Fried Calamari
While the grilled version is healthier, breading and oil in fried calamari adds a lot of unnecessary fat and calories.
4. Caesar salad
Salad is healthy, right? Not necessarily. “Caesar salad is made with a lot of cheese and oil—not exactly light fare,” says Giancoli.
If you order it, she adds, make sure you ask for the dressing on the side so you can enjoy the flavor without overdoing it.
“Italians are famous for their bread,” Giancoli says. It can be hard to resist a basket of breadsticks, especially when they arrive at the table while you’re still waiting for your meal.
“If you’re trying to cut calories, ask them to take it or don’t bring it at all,” advises Giancoli.
6. Fettuccine Alfredo
It’s best to avoid cream-based dishes like fettuccine alfredo because “they’re high in saturated fat and calories,” says Giancoli.
For example, a side order of fettuccine alfredo at Carrabba’s Italian Grill is 690 calories with 49 grams of fat. And a dinner-sized portion of Olive Garden has more than 1,000 calories.
7. Tuscan Soup
Zuppa Toscana is packed with veggies like kale and celery, protein-packed beans and other healthy ingredients — but the broth is cream-based rather than broth-based, which adds to the calorie count.
A serving of Zuppa Toscana at Olive Garden has 220 calories – twice the calories of their minestrone.
4 Hacks for Eating Healthy at Italian Restaurants
Here are a few simple tricks for staying (relatively) healthy while eating at an Italian restaurant.
1. Look for low calorie menus
Don’t want to spend time scouring menus for healthier options (or trying to avoid eggplant parm)?
Many Italian restaurant chains now offer special low-calorie menus that feature lighter versions of popular favorites.
2. Get it going
Portion sizes at Italian restaurants can be epic, so ask your server to put half of your meal in a to-go box. before You start eating.
“Most of us eat what’s in front of us,” Giancoli says. It’s easy to stop when you can’t see the rest.
Bonus: You don’t have to worry about what to cook for dinner tomorrow!
3. Have soup and salad first
If you’re already full from healthy fare, you can’t overeat.
“If you have a salad without a cream-based dressing, or a broth-based soup like minestrone first, it can help you eat fewer calories overall,” Giancoli says.
4. Add a parmesan kick
While it may seem counterintuitive to add extra cheese to an Italian dish, Parm is actually “very tasty, so you don’t need much to add an extra punch to your meal,” Giancoli says.
If possible, add it yourself so you can control how much goes on your food.