By Stephanie Saunders

Italian food is considered the most popular cuisine in the world. Every country has its own spin on pasta, pizza, and the various Italian-style meat dishes. Here in the States, even the smallest of towns tend to have an Olive Garden® lurking in a strip mall somewhere. Italian food is usually hearty, rich, and plentiful in portion, which makes it a real crowd-pleaser. It is also loaded with diet land mines such as cream sauce, cheese, and sundry fried goodness. How do we enjoy the taste of such an amazing cuisine without ruining our hard-earned bodies? Here, the second installment on Restaurant Rescue will walk you through a typical Italian menu, and help you avoid the pitfalls.


Appetizers do exist in Italy, but not in the fried-bread-heavy way we've made them in the States. Most appetizers in Italy consist of grilled vegetables, a touch of salami, and a bit of mozzarella cheese. Somehow, we've turned this into bruschetta, fried calamari and cheese, stuffed mushrooms, and cheese-infested garlic bread. Your first step in Italian eating should be to skip the appetizer, and go for a salad. In case you choose to splurge, use the following nutritional breakdowns—based on average serving sizes in an Italian restaurant—as a guide.

Calories Fat Carbs Sodium Protein
Bruschetta, 1 slice 105 7 g 9 g 146 mg 1.7 g
Fried calamari, 6 oz. 350 10 g 16 g 520 mg 30 g
Fried mozzarella sticks, 2 sticks 150 8 g 13 g 410 mg 8 g
Cheese-stuffed mushrooms, 6 pieces 410 28 g 20 g 146 mg 15.6 g
Garlic bread, 2.5-in. slice 170 7 g 25 g 250 mg 4 g
Bread sticks, 1 serving at Olive Garden 150 2 g 28 g 350 mg 5 g


Minestrone tends to be the most popular choice of soups when going Italian. And what a great choice it is! Full of vegetables and broth-based, it is a great way to begin a meal. Many restaurants also include Italian wedding soup, a chicken broth with pork and beef meatballs, which really isn't that kind to your waistline. You'll also find pasta-infused soups like pasta fagioli (also known as pasta e fagioli), which are not unhealthy, but will add to your meal's carb count. Unless your soup is your main course for the evening, stick to the vegetables and save some calories for the main course. The following are nutritional breakdowns based on a 5-oz. serving, but can obviously vary if other ingredients are added.

Calories Fat Carbs Sodium Protein
Minestrone soup 164 1 g 18 g 610 mg 5 g
Italian wedding soup 130 7 g 12 g 350 mg 5 g
Pasta e fagioli soup 320 11 g 13 g 1,240 mg 15 g


Beginning any meal with leafy greens is usually a good idea—until it comes to the dressing, which can often offset our meal by 300 calories. Then, there are Italian "salads" like caprese (thick-sliced mozzarella and tomatoes covered in basil and olive oil) and antipasto (a plethora of Italian meats and cheeses) which don't skimp on fat content, either. If you do begin with a green salad, ask for the dressing on the side, resist the cheese, and avoid the endless salad bowl. If you choose caprese or antipasto, split an order with everyone at the table.

Calories Fat Carbs Sodium Protein
Green salad, 2 Tbsp. dressing 210 8 g 31 g 784 mg none
Caprese, 3 slices 260 21 g 5 g none 10 g
Antipasto, 2 oz. 240 15.6 g 4 g 697 mg 20 g

Main Course

Like any country, Italy's main courses vary pretty dramatically from region to region, but they all use fresh, nutrient-rich ingredients, including heart-healthy olive oil.

Unless you go to a restaurant that specializes in northern Italian cuisine, which favors lean meats and vegetables, most of what we find in the U.S. are assortments of meat, pasta, cheese, sauce, and vegetables. When eaten in appropriate portions, they're not so bad for you, but America is the land of the giant plate, so we tend to blow it even with the healthiest of food choices. Remember the palm-of-your-hand trick: any serving of meat or carbs should each be able to fit in the palm of your hand.

And then there are the things that aren't so good for you. If it says cream sauce, alfredo, pesto, or clam sauce, just say no. If it's stuffed with anything, keep moving down the menu. And if the name ends with parmesan—which means breaded, fried, and smothered in cheese—save yourself an extra 1,000 calories, and order a grilled chicken breast. Here is a list of popular pasta choices, in 10-oz. servings, in ascending order of fat-gram destructiveness:

Calories Fat Carbs Sodium Protein
Spaghetti marinara 350 4 g 51 g 700 mg 9 g
Cheese-stuffed ravioli 290 7 g 44 g 280 mg 13 g
Fettuccini alfredo 780 18 g 125 g 1,600 mg 13 g
Linguini with clam sauce 760 32 g 106 g 1,600 mg 32 g
Spaghetti with meatballs 820 40 g 65 g 1,600 mg 50 g
Baked ziti 701 41 g 43 g 1,221 mg 39 g


Italian restaurants have a variety of evil desserts, most of which have nothing to do with Italy. Please note that if you can avoid dessert, or at least share it with someone else, you'll save yourself a huge amount of time on the treadmill. Most desserts are fairly heavy on cream, butter, and fat. Also, remember that most Italians indulge in sweets only on very special occasions, and that fresh fruit tends to be the only sweet to close out a meal. Here's a list of desserts that actually originate from Italy:

Calories Fat Carbs Sodium Protein
Biscotti, 1 serving 200 9 g 26 g 90 mg 4 g
Cannoli, 1 serving 374 17 g 44 g 88 mg 10 g
Tiramisu, 3-in. slice 602 45 g 34 g 91 mg 7.8 g
Tortoni 472 29.6 g 42 g 77 mg 6.7 g

It is surprising for many to learn that obesity in Italy is not a "huge" problem. The United States is number one in the world, with a 30-percent obesity rate, while Italy ranks 25th, with less than 7 percent of its population classified as obese. Italy also has the lowest obesity rate in Europe, and is only 2 percent higher than Japan, the nation with the lowest obesity rate. How can this be the case for a country with such calorically rich cuisine? Many believe that the answer lies in the quality of food, portion size, and the time of day in which the food is consumed. Italians don't eat processed food, or things that have been frozen or altered. Most Italians begin each day with coffee and a small bread roll that's light as air. This tides them over until lunch—the big meal of the day. Between-meal snacking is reserved for kids. Dinner is usually pretty light. Sweets are saved for special occasions. If we could adopt just a couple of these principles, the U.S. might drop down on the list a little bit. And that would make eating out so much tastier.