Like other Mediterranean countries, Italy’s cuisine is rich in grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil, all of which may play a role in preventing heart disease and cancer.
So, what’s so fattening about the Italian food you’re eating? How about “almost everything.” In one meal, you can eat enough food to put on an entire pound of fat, which would take 5 hours and 9 minutes of jumping rope to burn off. Maybe that’s why Olive Garden refuses to give out the nutrient information of their foods unless you have (I’m not kidding here) “a note from a physician.”
So, unless you know what to look for, an Italian menu can be hazardous to your health.
THE SPECIALTY OF THE HOUSE — PASTA
Yes, pasta can be a healthy choice (at times); it’s the preparation and what’s added that causes complications. The sauces, the sides, and even the vegetables are not only cooked in oil, but sometimes butter and cheese are also added for extra flavor (not to mention extra fat). Your best defense is to ask the waiter to pack half your meal in a doggie bag before it’s even brought out, or share your dish with a friend.
DEEP FRIED FOODS
The menu doesn’t always say whether or not an item is deep fried, so ask. Frying is pretty standard for mozzarella and zucchini sticks, calamari, and of course chicken, veal, and eggplant parmigiana. You might think eggplant is a healthy choice because it’s a vegetable, but not when it’s deep fried and smothered with cheese. To save calories, skip the cheese and/or get your food grilled — trust me, you’ll still feel satisfied.
Not to depress you more, but this nutrient information doesn’t include the heaping side order of pasta that comes with these dishes — add another 606 calories, 15g fat, and 101g carbs. That brings your grand total to more than 1600 calories, not including a few pieces of bread dipped in olive oil.
DON’T GET SAUCED
The sauce in pasta is the heart of the dish. It’s what gives the pasta its “pastabilities.” The problem is that chefs are mostly interested in making their sauces taste the best — and there is no better guarantee of this than using plenty of cheese, butter, and oil. At least ask for the sauce on the side and add it yourself — sparingly.
Red and white sauces are both loaded with oil, and that includes marinara sauce. You would think pesto sauce made with basil, olive oil, grated cheese, and pine nuts is a healthy option, but more than half its calories are from fat. Keep in mind that carbonara sauce is made with eggs, ham or bacon, and cream — an obvious artery clogger. Oh, and if you love Alfredo sauce, sorry — it’s made entirely of cream, butter, and cheese.
Who doesn’t love a nice homemade lasagna? This favorite contains way too much cheese and ground meat for a single serving. Even the meatless version is no calorie bargain. Again, halve your entree so you’re only eating half the calories.
APPETIZERS, SIDES AND CONDIMENTS
Garlic bread — fuhggedaboutit. Bread drenched in olive oil — skip it — it’s more fattening than healthy. And that plate of antipasto — all those cheeses and pressed meats, such as pepperoni and salami, are full of saturated fat and cholesterol.
If you’re lucky, your restaurant will be one of the Italian places that serves fresh fruit. Otherwise, cool Italian ices are probably your best bet.
Although it’s a challenge, there are some excellent recipes out there for chefs, or anyone who wants to cook healthy Italian food that still tastes amazing. I was even able to create a recipe for chicken parmigiana that’s low in fat and tastes great. Basically, take a paper-thin cutlet, spray the pan with cooking spray, use Healthy Choice sauce and sprinkle on a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese, and you’re all set. And do I ever eat the oil and cheese laden restaurant version? I think I’ve already confessed enough.