Ordering From an Italian Restaurant Menu on a Low-Carb Diet

Is It Even Possible?

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

It's a Saturday night and your significant other wants Italian food. Or perhaps it's your best friend's baby shower at an Italian catering hall. Or maybe you had a rough day at work and want to order takeout for dinner, but the only place even remotely appealing is your local Italian eatery.

There are plenty of situations you may find yourself as a low-carb dieter where Italian cuisine is the only option you've got—but spaghetti and meatballs, brick-oven pizza, and warm, crusty garlic bread don't have much of a place on this diet.

Traditional Italian cuisine and low-carb eating might seem incompatible, but the fact is, Italian restaurants have plenty of dishes without pasta as their centerpiece. Finding them is easier if you start to “think like an Italian” when eating at Italian restaurants.

Think Like An Italian 

Contrary to popular belief in America, Italians don't sit around and eat pasta all day. An Italian meal is actually quite balanced and includes only 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 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.

The portion sizes here are much larger, making them very high in carbs, so it's best to just let your eyes skip over the pasta and pizza sections of the menu. Here are some low-carb guidelines to follow when ordering from an Italian menu. 

If You're Skipping the Pasta, What's Left? 

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 shine. These are your best bets when dining at an Italian restaurant. Also, be sure to take advantage of the copious olive oil available on every table.

Olive oil's antioxidants and heart-healthy fats are part of the reason why the Mediterranean Diet is so healthy, and it fits perfectly into your low-carb diet. 

If you find your eyes 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.

Lastly, 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. 

Go for Meat And Veggie 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.

Look for Thinner 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, stracciatella (a sort of Italian eggdrop soup) and vegetable-heavy minestrone are good options.

Think of Salads (Insalata) As Your Safety Net

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, cheeses, and, of course, olive oil and vinegar. 

Make Meat and Seafood (Secondi) Your Centerpiece 

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.”

End Your Meal with Fruit

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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