There is a stereotype in the United States that Italians eat pasta all day. Surprise -- this is a myth. Kyle Phillips, About.com’s Guide to Italian Cuisine, tells us that an Italian meal is quite balanced, and includes perhaps a cup of pasta cooked “al dente” at a typical dinner. Cooking pasta this way (much firmer than is common in the United States) lowers the glycemic index of the pasta, and perhaps even the amount of carbohydrate available to for digestion (see resistant starch). This approach can be consistent with a moderately low-carbohydrate diet such as the Zone diet. However, in the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that serves a cup of al dente pasta.
Low-Carb Italian Eating – Dos and Don’tsDos:
- Let your eyes skip past the pizza and pasta sections of the menu. You may be surprised to find how much low-carb gold is hiding in plain sight under other headings.
- Italians are known for shopping daily for the freshest and choicest produce, seafood, and meats, often with a fairly simple preparation so as not to hide the wonderful fresh flavors. So think like an Italian, and order items with lots of healthy fresh ingredients.
- Italian food often has olive oil drizzled over it, and sometimes there is olive oil on the table for this purpose. Take advantage of it. The type of fat as well as the antioxidants in olive oil are part of the reason for the healthfulness of the “Mediterranean Diet.”
- Eat slowly and enjoy. Italians don’t “wolf” their food. They eat their main meal slowly over several small courses, ideally with much conversation and laughter.
- Avoid or minimize the following which are high in carbs: pasta, bread, risotto, polenta, bruschetta, crostini.
- If you are in a low-carb phase, such as Atkins Induction, avoid meatballs, which usually have bread crumbs in them.
- Be aware that fried items, such as a calamari appetizer, will usually be breaded. Ditto eggplant parmesan, and some meat dishes.
Appetizers (Antipasti)In Italian, “pasto” means “meal,” and “antipasti” or “antipasto” is “before the meal.” A lot of antipasti are made with meats, seafood, and vegetables, so we’re in luck. For example:
- An “antipasto platter” typically contains an assortment of meats such as salami, cheeses, and marinated vegetables such as artichokes and peppers.
- Carpaccio is aged, raw, thinly sliced beef or raw fish, usually served with an olive oil dressing and a few vegetables.
- Gamberoni (shrimp) is a common antipasto dish, either cold or hot, often sautéed with garlic and wine.
- Look for grilled, roasted, or marinated vegetables.
- Steamed clams or mussels are common antipasti.
SoupsItalians love soup, and in Italy, soups are often served instead of pasta. Many Italian soups are low in carbs, although some have bread in them. Even the soups with beans or pasta in them often only have small amounts of these in a portion. Since there are so many different soups, the exact carb count depends on the cook, but generally you’ll want to go with thinner soups. Seafood soups are often thin. Stracciatelle is a sort of Italian eggdrop soup. Also, look for soups with lots of vegetables.
Salads (Insulata)Salads abound in Italy, and are almost always a good bet, if you avoid croutons or other bread. An Italian salad could contain any fresh vegetables –- and, of course, olive oil. The classic caprese salad has mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil.
Dealing With PastaFind your eye drifting towards those tempting pasta dishes on the menu? Feel free to ask for the pasta “toppings” on a bed of vegetables, or even all on their own as a side dish. Pesto on chicken and vegetables is delicious.
Meats and Seafood – often labeled SecondiThis is the main part of the meal for someone eating low carb. Most of the meats and seafood on an Italian menu have little starch or sugar. If you avoid breaded meats (such as chicken or veal parmesan or milanese), you’re in great shape. True Italian tomato sauces have little or no sugar, although many pasta sauces in the United States are loaded with added sugars. If your local restaurant uses these, you’d want to avoid red sauces, or go for tomato sauces labeled “fresh.”
DessertsIn Italy, meals are often ended with fresh fruit, which is perfect for us. Needless to say, the richer desserts are well-endowed with carbohydrates, so best to stay away, or have one bite of a fellow-diner’s dessert.