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I'm a Dietitian—Here's What I Order at an Italian Restaurant

Look beyond the endless bread and pasta to these delicious choices that support your health goals.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

Italian food is synonymous with pasta, bread, creamy sauces, wine, and desserts. Although you may consider an Italian meal an indulgent choice, this doesn't have to be the case. Sure, the complimentary bread at restaurants is tempting, and the portions big enough for two adults are hard to pass up. Still, you can enjoy a delicious and satisfying meal at an Italian restaurant while keeping your weight and health goals in mind.

In general, restaurant meals are higher in calories, fat, and sodium than a similar meal you may make at home. While the jarred tomato sauce you use for spaghetti provides minimal fat grams, the homemade restaurant cause likely has a higher fat content from oil. Similarly, you may use less oil and butter in preparing your vegetables and protein than what is used at most restaurants. Because of this, eating out frequently can hamper weight loss goals.

To help you choose better at your favorite Italian restaurant, I've compiled my best tips for healthy orders. Read on to learn how I order from Italian restaurants as a dietitian. And for more healthy eating tips, don't miss I'm a Dietitian—Here's What I Order at a Mexican Restaurant.

Skip the Bread

bread basket

It's no fun to skip this one, but the bread and oil dip before your meal can easily provide a few hundred calories. It may be delicious and satisfy your hunger in the moment, but the bread offered usually doesn't provide much fiber, making it a less nutritious choice.

Eat This Instead: Instead of picking at the bread while you wait for your entrée, order a starter salad. This option is higher in fiber, improves your satiety before the meal, and keeps you busy and out of the bread basket. Even better, ask for the dressing on the side and use less than half to avoid excess empty calories.

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Avoid Fried Ingredients


Eggplant and chicken Parmesan may be menu staples at an Italian restaurant, but these dishes can pack high calorie counts. Not to mention, enough fat grams to meet your needs for an entire day.

Eat This Instead: Instead of a fried entree, go with a lean protein that is grilled or pan-cooked. For example, chicken marsala is pan-seared and non-breaded, making it a lighter choice. You can also look for dishes with a simple non-breaded fish filet or grilled shrimp as an alternative to popular fried entrees.

Incorporate a Lean Protein

grilled cajun shrimp

All meals should contain a source of protein. Noodles contain some protein, but you must eat a pretty hearty portion to achieve your protein needs for a meal.

Eat This Instead: Instead of relying on a large pasta dish for your protein needs, choose a dish with a lean protein source. Grilled shrimp, fish, and chicken breast are popular at most restaurants. While you'll find plenty of red meat options, like Bolognese and meatballs, these can provide a high amount of fat and saturated fat. Choosing leaner meats can lead to a lower-calorie meal that is equally satiating without the worry of high amounts of saturated fat.

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Pasta Should Be a Side, Not the Star


That big bowl of pasta is tempting, but it can lead to a calorie-packed meal without adequate protein and minimal veggies. Instead of making pasta your entrée, enjoy it as a side. Choose a dish that includes lean protein as the star of the meal with a side of veggies and pasta. This keeps your portion of noodles more reasonable for a lower calorie goal but still allows you to enjoy the Italian staple. A meal with lean protein and veggies will make for a more satiating dish, helping you feel fuller with a small volume of food.

Healthy Italian Meals to Order


With these tips, you can work towards your wellness goals while still enjoying a meal out at your favorite Italian spot. Check out my menu recommendations below for more specific ideas of healthier orders at an Italian restaurant.

  • Minestrone: This veggie-based soup is loaded with fiber and makes for a filling starter. Enjoy a cup of soup before your meal to help you avoid the bread basket and feel more satiated before the main course.
  • Cioppino: This seafood stew is loaded with protein and healthy fats and is generally lower in carbs. Enjoy a side salad before your entree to incorporate veggies into your meal, and you have a balanced order that will leave you satisfied.
  • Pasta primavera: Although noodles are the base of this dish, it is also loaded with veggies. Add a lean protein, like grilled shrimp or chicken, and you have a filling option. Even better, ask for a take-home box and enjoy only half the noodles to keep your portion reasonable.
  • Grilled calamari: While the fried alternative is popular on menus, grilled calamari is a great source of protein and makes for a light meal. Pair it with a single slice of bread and a side salad or minestrone for a well-rounded meal that keeps you on track toward your goals.

Melissa Rifkin, MS, RDN, CDN
Melissa is a Connecticut-based registered dietitian with over 15 years of experience, including clinical and outpatient settings, and runs the popular nutrition education Instagram account, Confessionofadietitian. Read more about Melissa