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When it comes to ethnic eating in America, Italian food, together with Mexican and Chinese food, are what the restaurant industry calls the "Big Three." In addition to their popularity, these cuisines share something else-a loss of authenticity that with time has transformed some once-healthful traditional specialties into ones you should think twice about before ordering. The best way to enjoy a terrific Italian meal these days is to take your cues from the past.
The Italian food most Americans have grown up eating in restaurants has its roots in the cuisine of southern Italy, which is bolder, more highly seasoned, and has less meat, cheese, and cream sauce than northern fare. It evolved from traditional peasant food that made the best and most delicious use of inexpensive, readily available ingredients. Vegetables, including familiar favorites like tomato, eggplant, peppers, and artichoke, were served in season. Fresh seafood was caught and savored the same day. Sauces, whether fresh and uncooked or slow simmered until the flavors melted into one another, always included a splash of olive oil to add an extra dimension to the taste. Seasonings such as fresh basil, capers, oregano, lemon, and olives lent their zesty, lively flavors. Meat, expensive and far from abundant, was enjoyed on the occasional feast day or used in small quantities as a flavoring rather than as a main dish-a tradition that continues today in Italian home cooking. And flavorful cheeses were used sparingly but to great effect as a garnish rather than as the focus of a dish. From humble ingredients came a great cuisine. The Italian way of eating has become one of the world's most beloved. Americans adore Italian food. It is a cuisine that wraps its arms around diners with bold, fresh flavors. Over the years, however, something has been lost in the translation. For many people, Italian food has become veal smothered in mozzarella, fettuccine coated with cream-and-cheese sauce, and lasagnas oozing with fatty meat and cheese. And our servings are far larger than is customary in Italy. Nothing could be further removed from the light, fresh preparations for which southern Italy is noted.
You can still find the basic components of low-fat, healthful eating in most Italian restaurants; you just need to choose carefully. If you opt for pasta with marinara, clam, or even meat sauce (forget the cream and cheese sauces) and add a salad of dark, leafy greens and fresh vegetables, you can have a delicious, healthy, and truly Italian meal.
The Dishes and the Data
We bought dinner-size take-out portions of 3 popular appetizers and 13 entrees from 21 midprice Italian restaurants in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. (For more on our methodology, see pages 12-14.) We chose independent restaurants rather than chains like The Olive Garden because more than three-quarters of the country's Italian restaurants are independently owned. (However, The Olive Garden provides numbers on its healthy meals, which are found on a separate chart on page 133.) We didn't do pizza because it's more like fast food. It's covered in chapter 7, Any Way You Slice It: Pizzerias, page 135. Within each category, we've listed the dishes from best to worst-that is, from least to most saturated fat. We did not test for trans fat; if we had, the saturated-fat numbers would be higher than those indicated.
Fried calamari - (1,040 calories and 70 grams of fat, 9 of them saturated)
Although most of the 1,000-plus calories and 70 grams of fat in an average 3-cup portion of fried calamari comes from the breading and deep frying, you can thank the squid itself for the whopping amount of cholesterol. The 925 milligrams of cholesterol in this dish are a three-day supply, or about what you'd get in a four-egg omelette. The restaurants told us that a portion serves just one, but even a half-portion is enough to make your arteries howl. When your appetizer packs 1,000 calories, your hips and paunch don't have a fighting chance.
The Bottom Line: Don't order this unless you're dining out with a crowd of friends and can share the calorie and cholesterol burden.
Garlic bread - (820 calories and 40 grams of fat, 10 of them saturated)
Most restaurants consider an 8-ounce serving to be an order for one, so that's what our chart lists. But the equivalent of eight slices of Wonder bread seems extreme to us. The 40 grams of fat come from the olive oil (3 tablespoons) or butter (almost half a stick) and, in some restaurants, from the Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.
The Bottom Line: Order plain Italian bread instead and stop at one or two slices. If you're in a restaurant that brings olive oil to the table for dipping, dip lightly. Whether the olive oil is regular or extra-virgin, it will have 120 calories per tablespoon.
Antipasto - (630 calories and 47 grams of fat, 15 of them saturated)
Here's an appetizer that gives new meaning to the word "Mangia!" Its long list of components generally includes assorted meats like salami, mortadella, prosciutto, ham, and pepperoni; cheeses like provolone and mozzarella; and marinated vegetables, olives, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce, and tomato, all topped off with olive oil or other dressing. We estimate that if you eat the whole lollapalooza (all 11/2 pounds worth!) by yourself, you'll end up with three-quarters of the fat and saturated fat and all-or more-of the sodium you should eat in an entire day.
The Bottom Line: Share the plate with three friends. Get the oil and vinegar or other dressing on the side and use just a touch. Ask the kitchen to go lightly on the meats and cheeses and heavy on vegetables, like peppers, olives, chickpeas, and kidney beans.
Spaghetti with marinara sauce - (850 calories and 17 grams of fat, 4 of them saturated)
Spaghetti with marinara (or just tomato) sauce is a winner because it's low in saturated fat. The problem is that it's got 850 calories. It's the generous portion of pasta-31/2 cups-that piles the calories on. Then again, when it comes to restaurant meals, you could do a lot worse than 850 calories. And the tomato sauce is rich in lycopene, a carotenoid that may help cut the risk of prostate cancer. So overall, this one's a go.
The Bottom Line: The best choice.
Linguine with red clam sauce - (890 calories and 23 grams of fat, 4 of them saturated)
This popular dish has only 4 grams of saturated fat. That's pretty hard to beat. But it serves up almost a day's sodium (2,180 milligrams). And, like other bountiful pasta dishes, the calories approach 900. Just make sure you start out with a salad (and light dressing) rather than half a loaf of garlic bread for an appetizer.
The Bottom Line: A decent dish for seafood fans.
Linguine with white clam sauce - (910 calories and 29 grams of fat, 5 of them saturated)
The sauce for this Italian restaurant favorite, which is typically made with clams, olive oil, garlic, and sometimes white wine, has only 5 grams of saturated fat. It lacks some of the nutrients in its tomato-based counterpart, but it's a good alternative if you're looking for a change of pace from red sauce.
The Bottom Line: A popular classic worth ordering.
Chicken Marsala - (460 calories and 25 grams of fat, 7 of them saturated; with a side order of spaghetti, 870 calories and 33 grams of fat, 9 of them saturated)
Surely the skinless chicken breasts or the mushrooms that are the basis of this relatively uncomplicated dish can't be to blame for all that fat? They're not. The sauce, which also has marsala wine in it, is made with butter or oil. And although the calories (460) are far lower than any other Italian dish that we analyzed, most people get a side order of spaghetti to round out the meal. That would put its calories and saturated fat in line with a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce.
The Bottom Line: Ask the kitchen to go easy on this rich sauce. If you're watching your weight, consider replacing the side of spaghetti with a side of vegetables or a salad (but only if you get light dressing).
Spaghetti with meat sauce - (920 calories and 25 grams of fat, 7 of them saturated)
Often called Bolognese on menus, this meat and tomato sauce has nearly 50 percent more fat than marinara or tomato sauce. As restaurant dishes go, this one's not too fatty because the high proportion of pasta overwhelms the 3 to 4 ounces of greasy ground meat in the sauce.
The Bottom Line: A satisfying choice for meat lovers who don't want to overdo it on the fat front.
Spaghetti with sausage - (1,040 calories and 39 grams of fat, 10 of them saturated)
Because it contains three times more pasta than fatty Italian sausage (sometimes sliced into chunks, other times served as links), this dish is better for you than you might expect. Even so it'll cost you more than 1,000 calories and 2,400 milligrams of sodium.
The Bottom Line: Order the sausage with marinara or tomato sauce rather than meat sauce.
Spaghetti with meatballs - (1,160 calories and 39 grams of fat, 10 of them saturated)
Between the meatballs and the meat sauce, you can expect a third more meat on your plate than you'd get by ordering spaghetti with meat sauce alone.
The Bottom Line: No need to gild the lily by eating a meat sauce on meatballs. Do your arteries a favor and ask the kitchen to top the meatballs with a marinara meatless tomato sauce. Save half for tomorrow.
Cheese ravioli - (620 calories and 26 grams of fat, 11 of them saturated)
Much of the saturated fat here comes from the 3 ounces of ricotta cheese filling in these square pillows of pasta served in marinara or tomato sauce. That's half a day's worth, but still one-third less than what you'd get in an order of cheese manicotti.
The Bottom Line: A reasonable choice for people watching their weight, since it has about half the calories of a dish like spaghetti with meatballs.
Veal Parmigiana - (650 calories and 36 grams of fat, 12 of them saturated; with a side order of spaghetti, 1,060 calories and 44 grams of fat, 14 of them saturated)
You may think veal is heart-healthy, but think again. This entree contains half of a day's fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Remember, anything parmigiana is going to be dipped in egg and milk, breaded, sauteed in oil or butter, topped with marinara sauce, and usually smothered with fatty melted cheese. Our average order was less than half veal; the rest was cheese and oil-soaked breading. Add a typical 11/2 cup side order of spaghetti with marinara or tomato sauce, and the calories climb to over 1,000. (And all that is aside from the deplorable way in which most veal calves are raised.)
The Bottom Line: Ask for veal parmigiana without the traditional mozzarella topping and you'll lose more than half the saturated fat.
Eggplant parmigiana - (800 calories and 54 grams of fat, 14 of them saturated; with a side order of spaghetti, 1,210 calories and 62 grams of fat, 14 of them saturated.
Did you think this vegetable dish was healthful? Would you just assume it's a better choice than veal parmigiana? Unfortunately, eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge. That's one reason the calories hit 800. A quarter of the fat here comes from the mozzarella cheese topping, the rest from the oil used to fry the breaded eggplant.
The Bottom Line: Ask the kitchen to hold the mozzarella and you'll cut more than half the saturated fat.
Cheese manicotti - (700 calories and 38 grams of fat, 17 of them saturated)
On average, we found almost half a pound of ricotta cheese stuffed inside and draped over the surface of these big tubes of pasta. That's enough to supply over three-quarters of your daily saturated fat quota. Our samples were served in marinara or tomato sauce, but some restaurants use bechamel, a creamy white sauce, which is even fattier.
The Bottom Line: Skip the cheese topping and you'll avoid a quarter of the saturated fat.
Lasagna - (960 calories and 53 grams of fat, 21 of them saturated)
An average 2-cup serving of one of America's favorite Italian dishes charges you a day's saturated fat. That's what happens when you layer roughly a quarter pound of ground beef with one-third pound of ricotta and mozzarella cheese between wide, flat lasagna noodles. You'd have to eat two McDonald's Big Macs to get this much saturated fat.
The Bottom Line: There's not much you can do to make this better, although skipping the melted cheese on top would certainly be a step in the right direction.
|1.||Introduction: Eating Out as a Way of Life||1|
|2.||Nutrition: Eating Out--Healthfully||15|
|3.||Rise and Dine: Breakfast||67|
|4.||Hold the Mayo: Sandwich Shops||85|
|5.||Wok This Way: Chinese Restaurants||103|
|6.||Use Your Noodle: Italian Restaurants||119|
|7.||Any Way You Slice It: Pizzerias||135|
|8.||Drop the Chalupa: Mexican Restaurants||161|
|9.||Acropolis Now: Greek Restaurants||179|
|10.||Catch of the Day: Seafood Restaurants||189|
|11.||Here's the Beef: Steak Houses||207|
|12.||Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Dinner Houses||223|
|13.||Home away from Home: Family-Style Restaurants||239|
|14.||In the Drink: Beverages||251|
|15.||Sweet Nothings: Pastry and Desserts||257|
|16.||On the Run: Fast-Food Restaurants||271|
|17.||Shop Till You Drop: Mall Food||303|
|18.||Horror Show: Movie Theater Snacks||355|
Posted January 8, 2003
Having seen the ill-effects of poor nutritional consumption first-hand I can say that anything which might help a reader to make a more educated choice about a dining decision should be encouraged. An example that caught a patient's eye recently was the nutritional content of her daily latte. She hadn't considered that drink to be such a major part of her caloric intake for the day. Additionally, in her case, her tuna-salad sandwich at lunch was another 'healthful' misconception on her part. With that in mind, I advise you peruse this book at your local bookhouse and compare it to others within the genre and make an educated decision for yourself. There are some eye-opening nuggets to be dicerned.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 22, 2002
I thought that this book would actually have some detailed information on restaurants other than fast food, but was sorely disappointed. All the listings you'll find in this book are on the web (for free) and the rest is complete common sense for anyone who knows the bare minimum about nutrition.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.