How to Eat Low Carb at Italian Restaurants

It's not impossible to steer clear of carbs with these easy tips

Detail of antipasti platter at Fratelli Burgio
Holger Leue/Getty Images

When you think of Italian food, your mind might immediately leap to carb-heavy dishes like pasta, pizza and bread. But if you think Italian restaurants are off the table when you're eating low carb, think again. Lots of Italian dishes are great choices for people who must watch their carbs. Finding them is easier if you start to “think like an Italian” when eating at Italian restaurants.

There is a stereotype in the United States that Italians eat pasta all day.

Surprise! They don't. An Italian meal is actually quite balanced and includes about a cup of pasta cooked “al dente” at a typical dinner. Cooking pasta this way (much firmer than is common in the United States) lowers the glycemic index of the pasta, and perhaps even the amount of carbohydrate available to for digestion (see resistant starch). This approach can be consistent with a moderately low-carbohydrate diet such as the Zone diet. However, in the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that serves only a cup of al dente pasta.

Low-Carb Italian Eating – Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  • Let your eyes skip past the pizza and pasta sections of the menu. You may be surprised to find how many low-carb offerings are hiding in plain sight under other headings.
  • Italians are known for shopping daily for the freshest and choicest produce, seafood and meat, which they prepare simply to let the fresh flavors shone. So order items with lots of healthy fresh ingredients.
  • Italian food often has olive oil drizzled over it, and sometimes there is olive oil on the table for this purpose. Take advantage of it. Olive oil's antioxidants and heart-healthy fats are part of the reason why the Mediterranean Diet is so healthful.
  • Eat slowly and enjoy. Italians don’t scarf down their food. They eat their main meal slowly over several small courses, ideally with much conversation and laughter.

    Don’t:

    • Don't make the center of your plate high in carbs: pasta, bread, risotto, polenta, bruschetta, crostini.
    • If you are in a very low-carb phase, such as Atkins Induction, avoid meatballs, which usually have bread crumbs in them.
    • Be aware that fried items, such as a calamari appetizer, will usually be breaded. Ditto eggplant parmesan and some meat dishes.

    Here are more course-specific tips for eating out at an Italian restaurant:

    Appetizers (Antipasti)

    In Italian, “pasto” means “meal” and “antipasti” or “antipasto” is “before the meal.” A lot of antipasti are made with meats, seafood and vegetables, providing lots of low-carb options. For example:

    • An “antipasto platter” typically contains an assortment of meats such as salami, cheeses and marinated vegetables such as artichokes and peppers.
    • Carpaccio is aged, raw, thinly sliced beef or raw fish, usually served with an olive oil dressing and a few vegetables.
    • Gamberoni (shrimp) is a common antipasto dish, served either cold or hot, and the shrimp is often sautéed with garlic and wine.
    • Look for grilled, roasted or marinated vegetables.
    • Steamed clams or mussels are common antipasti.

    Soups

    Italians love soup, and in Italy, soups are often served instead of pasta. Many Italian soups are low in carbs, although some have bread in them. Even the soups with beans or pasta in them often only have small amounts per serving. Since there are so many different soups, the exact carb count depends on the cook, but generally you should look for thinner soups. Seafood soups, stracciatelle (a sort of Italian eggdrop soup) and vegetable-heavy minestrone are good options.

    Salads (Insalata)

    Salads abound in Italy, and are almost always a good bet, if you avoid croutons or other bread (such as the bread-and-tomato salad panzanella). An Italian salad could contain any fresh vegetables –- and, of course, olive oil. 

    Pasta

    Find your eye drifting towards those tempting pasta dishes on the menu? Feel free to ask for the pasta “toppings” on a bed of vegetables, or even all on their own as a side dish. Pesto on chicken and vegetables is delicious.

    Meats and Seafood – often labeled Secondi

    This is the main part of the meal for someone eating a diet low in carbohydrate. Most of the meats and seafood on an Italian menu have little starch or sugar added. Avoid breaded meats (such as chicken or veal parmesan or milanese), and you'll be in great shape. True Italian tomato sauces have little or no sugar, although many pasta sauces in the United States are loaded with added sugars. If your local restaurant uses these, avoid red sauces, or go for tomato sauces labeled “fresh.”

    Desserts

    In Italy, meals are often ended with fresh fruit. Needless to say, the richer desserts are well-endowed with carbohydrates, so best to stay away, or just have a taste of a fellow-diner’s dessert.

    Buon Appetito!

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