Italian Food Nutrition Facts: Menu Choices & Calories

Best and Worst Health Choices at Italian Restaurants

Pasta primavera
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Do you love to enjoy Italian food when you dine out? Many healthy eaters love to eat pasta, pizza, and other popular dishes. But what about Italian food nutrition? Should you consider your night at the pizzeria or the pasta joint part of your cheat day? Thankfully, you don't  have to. There are many ways to enjoy healthy Italian food when you go out.

Analyzing the Italian Restaurant Menu

It probably won't come as a surprise that the starchy, creamy pasta dishes you see on most Italian menus won't do much for your waistline.

And the pizza selections in many casual Italian restaurants are often loaded with salty, fatty meats and covered in fattening cheese. But there are plenty of healthy alternatives. 

Many fresh Italian entrees are made with savory vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, or eggplant and healthy sources of fat, like olives or olive oil. If you keep portion sizes small, you can enjoy a small antipasto salad or vegetable soup (like minestrone), a small pasta course and a lean meat and vegetable entree.  

If you're watching your caloric intake, share each course with your dinner date. That way, you can enjoy each traditional food and still keep your healthy eating plan on track.

The Most Popular Italian Food

Almost everyone orders pasta when they visit an Italian restaurant. Spaghetti tops the list as an all-time favorite. The calories in a single cup of the savory dish won't derail your diet. But how often do you eat just a single cup?

Spaghetti With Meatballs Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 cup (246 g)
Per Serving% Daily Value*
Calories 239 
Calories from Fat 90 
Total Fat 10 g15%
Saturated Fat 3.5 g17%
Polyunsaturated Fat 1.2 g 
Monounsaturated Fat 4 g 
Cholesterol 17 mg5%
Sodium 775 mg32%
Potassium 494 mg14%
Carbohydrates 27 g9%
Sugars 7 g 
Protein 11 g 
Vitamin A 13% · Vitamin C 9%
Calcium 8% · Iron 16%
*Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

Italian food nutrition will also depend on where you choose to dine. If you visit The Olive Garden and order Spaghetti with Traditional Marinara Sauce and Meatballs (3) you'll consume 900 calories and over 38 grams of fat if you eat the whole meal.

Other Olive Garden choices provide more calories and fat. Fettuccine Alfredo, for example, contains 1010 calories and 56 grams of fat. Lasagna Classico provides 930 calories and 53 grams of fat, and Eggplant Parmigiana provides 1060 and 54 grams of fat.

Healthiest Options on the Italian Menu

When you order your meal at an Italian restaurant, focus on protein and veggies to make your meal more healthy. And paying attention to portion size is essential. Some starter portions or appetizers are large enough to split between several diners.

Lightly dressed salads and broth-based soups are likely to be lower in calories. Pasta e fagioli (traditional pasta and bean soup) is often hearty enough to be a full meal. 

If you love pasta, then enjoy a small plate.

Pasta dishes that are lightly tossed in oil and topped with seafood (shrimp, scallops or salmon) and grilled vegetables are generally the best choices. Order whole grain pasta if it is available to increase your fiber intake. 

If you order a traditional entree look for selections that include grilled or roasted meats and vegetables. Poultry and seafood dishes are popular in many Italian restaurants and are likely to be lower in calories than breaded veal or fatty steaks. Vegetarian entrees like grilled eggplant are healthy options as well.

Least Healthy Choices on the Italian Menu

Even though most Italian dishes are made from wholesome, fresh ingredients, that doesn't mean that every dish is good for your waistline. In fact, some Italian food dishes can derail your diet for days.

If your favorite restaurant serves breadsticks when you sit down at the table, set them aside or ask the server to remove them. Save your starch calories for the meal. And when you scan the menu, avoid anything that includes the words "alfredo" or "carbonara" as these sauces are almost entirely made from fat. 

You should also avoid cured meats and sausages, especially if you are on a low sodium diets. These savory meats are very high in both salt and fat.

Lastly, be mindful of your food portions if you visit an Italian restaurant that serves family style meals. It is easy to overeat when large bowls of food are placed in front of you. Some restaurants even have "bottomless" entrees and refill the bowls as you eat.

If you dine family-style, fill your plate once and then savor the meal. Take extras home to enjoy at lunchtime the following day.

Healthy Italian Food Recipes

One great way to enjoy healthy Italian food is to cook your own at home. Season 4 MasterChef winner Luca Manfe provides this recipe from his book My Italian Kitchen

Grilled Vegetables with Garlic-Parsley Pesto

  • 4 Italian eggplants (about 1 pound/450 grams each), peeled and cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • Salt
  • 2 cups (480 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the vegetables
  • 2 medium summer squash, cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • 2 medium zucchinis, cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 ounces (about 1 cup; 200 grams) anchovies marinated in olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
  • ½ cup (120 milliliters) fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup (20 grams) chopped fresh parsley

Prepare the vegetables: Line 2 baking sheets with a double layer of paper towels and lay the eggplant slices over them. Lightly sprinkle with salt. This process is called degorging; it helps to bring the moisture out of the eggplant so when it’s cooked it will get crisp rather than soggy.

Drizzle a little olive oil into a large sauté pan or grill pan and wipe the pan with a paper towel. Place over medium-high heat and heat until screaming hot. Lay down enough vegetables to fill the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until browned and turning translucent. Drizzle some more olive oil over the vegetables and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until browned on the second side. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (if all your baking sheets are being used for the eggplant, use a platter or a few plates). Season very lightly with salt and pepper.

Continue cooking the squash and zucchini in batches in the same fashion until all the slices are cooked. Note that the pan will get hotter as you continue to cook and the vegetables can burn if you don’t keep a watchful eye; you may need to lower the heat a little and cook for a minute or so less on each side. 

Pat the eggplant slices with paper towels and cook them in the pan the same way you cooked the squash and zucchini, except you’ll need about twice as much oil.

Prepare the marinade: In a food processor, combine the olive oil, anchovies, garlic, lemon zest and juice, parsley, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Blend for a minute or so. As you may have noticed, we are not adding any salt to the marinade, as the anchovies are already very salty.

Arrange a layer of assorted vegetables in a glass casserole dish or baking dish. Cover with some of the marinade and repeat with additional layers of vegetables and marinade until all the vegetables have been used. Cover and refrigerate overnight before serving. 

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