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  • Jane Buscemi

Dieting While Dining at Italian Restaurants

We love Italian food in our family, my husband is half Sicilian and one of my favorite memories is of his father giving me cooking lessons and teaching me the family recipes. Everything was always delicious. I want to experience that tastiness when I dine out without compromising my waist line. Fortunately, there are dishes that are quite tasty that fit my criteria.

The word tasty of course may mean something different to you than it does to me. You can use the same methodology as I do and make totally different choices to please your own palate.

While looking over the menu, attempting to identify potentially vegan dishes is frequently a step towards a more dietetic meal. However, this, like cooking, means a range of things. A portion of deep-fried zucchini (if there’s no eggs in the batter) can be any place from 400 to 600 calories for a portion while sautéed zucchini, which usually contains far less oil, would be something like 40 calories for 1/2 a cup. Similarly, sautéed broccoli rabe as a starter can provide you with a lower fat alternative. The take home lesson: always pick sautéed over deep-fried while dining out.

Bruschetta as a topping with no cheese can be as little as 50 calories for 1/4 cup without the bread. If your okay with highly processed white bread, then having a little of this traditional staple of bruschetta is not a diet sin!

Soups can also be a wonderful, satisfying and dietetic way to start a meal. The often-vegan minestrone soup can be as little as 50 calories for a cup or as much as 160 calories per cup. The amount of oil in a recipe can impact that but so can the quantity of beans used. In a vegan soup, I am not fat/calorie concerned if its bean based. This is because I know beans are a satiating, nutrition powerhouse. Therefore, if an vegan escarole and bean soup is something like 220 calories or 360 calories, it is acceptable dish for me to order.

Salads are many peoples go to choice for dieting. However, when ordering salads, the fat and therefore the calories can be loaded on, rendering it a potential diet disaster. The sheer varieties of salads on menus can seem endless. One has to read the ingredients to guesstimate dieting suitability. Clearly, any vegetables as created in nature are fine. Looking a little closer, here are some small variations in common add ons: 1/3 cup of artichokes marinated in oil might be 100 calories, in water 80 calories, steamed is 30 calories. Meanwhile, 4 black olives that are canned might be 20 calories and the same amount of kalamata olives might be 45 calories. A quarter cup of almonds might add 170 calories or a half an avocado can be 120, which is a higher caloric price, but what really drives most salads over the caloric wall is the oil in the dressing, which is 100 calories for 1 tablespoon of pure fat. The dressing is an addition I always try to avoid. In an Italian restaurant, I often ask for fresh citrus and my husband is fine with just plain vinegar. When it comes to vinegar, I try to use the same rules that I use at home in choosing flavored balsamic, which is made without the corn syrup of other added sugars. However, sometimes certain flavors have some grape must (a processed added sugar). A favorite of mine is lemon balsamic as a great dressing on many Italian salads. Thankfully, some of my local restaurants permit me to bring my own dressing for my salad. Beyond the dressing, the key thing to watch for with salads is too many added fats. Judgement as to how much is too much added fat and your own personal experience are always necessary.

Although some restaurants are willing to adapt dishes to accommodate, most are far better at subtracting ingredients (while keeping the price the same). Only some restaurant are willing to add ingredients. For Italian restaurants that are willing to add beans or/and potatoes or/and portobello mushrooms to a dish or better yet use one of those ingredients as a base for a dish, it can expand the menu for you beyond the typical pizza or pasta combinations that are commonly offered. You can have a field day!! However, key to dieting success is in the choice of sauce. Do be aware that some chefs use animal products in sauces that many would frequently consider vegan. So ask, don’t assume.

Generally there is 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sauce on 4 oz of pasta and the amount of pasta in a serving at a particular restaurant can vary. The amount of oil in a sauce can also vary. The following are common caloric values for 1/2 cup of sauce.

Tomato basil sauce 100 calories

Marinara sauce 50 to 80 calories

Fra diavolo sauce 70 calories

Puttanesca sauce 100 calories

Arrabbiata sauce 80 calories

Garlic and oil sauce is listed as low as 100 calories per 1/2c but just plain oil is 100 calories per tablespoon and the amount used can vary substantially, so I avoid this sauce.

Vegan basil pesto sauce 300 calories

One conclusion you can draw when dining and choosing a sauce to put on a dish is GO RED.

If your restaurant offers vegan cheese, there are things to consider before you eat it. If you opt to use it, the best answer would be only in moderation, but it is nearly impossible to gauge what moderation means to a particular chef. Cheese has been described as congealed fat and commercial vegan cheese is for the most part no different than the animal product in that respect. I avoid the oil-derived cheeses, but I may use the nut and tofu varietals in moderation. However, there’s another cautionary tale here: just because a commercial vegan cheese says its nut derived, doesn’t mean it doesn’t also contain oil. One would have to be able to read the label or be familiar with the product used to tell.

Dessert is a place I try not to go when I dine out. Although the sorbet that is offered in many Italian restaurants is typically vegan, it is really just an excuse for highly processed sugar. I do not hesitate however to eat some fresh berries for dessert.

There are a lot of numbers here and I’m really not trying to turn you into a human calculator. These are examples of some typical Italian restaurant choices I make. I’m just trying to provide you with the reasoning behind certain choices. How successful you are on maintaining your waistline is in its simplest form about how good you are at avoiding high fat and highly processed foods.

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