If you're like most people trying to watch their weight, Italian cuisine is probably high on your list of red-light foods. After all, a lot of pasta, parmesan, bread, wine, and calamari can pack on the pounds quicker than a Snickers bar. But while "low-fat Italian" may sound like an oxymoron, there are ways to enjoy succulent Italian food while maintaining a healthy diet.
Renowned Italian chef Cesare Casella, former owner of Beppe restaurant in New York City and dean of the Italian Culinary Academy, says that traditional Italian foods -- especially those from Tuscany and the southern regions -- are actually healthier than typical American foods. "You see many more big people in America than in Italy, because American food is more heavy and fatty than our cooking," says Casella, who penned the books Diary of a Tuscan Chef and Italian Cooking for Dummies. Each contains a section on low-fat cooking.
It's all about sapore (flavor)
The key to preparing healthy Italian food, says Casella, who now owns Salumeria Rosi restaurant in New York City, lies in simply accenting the natural flavors of fresh meats and vegetables. He recommends marinating meat, seafood, and even veggies in low-fat marinades with ingredients like lemon juice, white wine, capers, and fresh herbs. Avoid fatty meats like prosciutto and salami, and experiment with grilling and broiling chicken and lean beef, or steaming your seafood instead of frying.
It's also important to buy the freshest vegetables and herbs you can find at your local grocery store or organic produce market, Casella says. Saut these veggies with just a touch of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs, and the result will be mouth-watering. Produce more than two days old can lose a lot of flavor, the chef explains, and that's when we're tempted to dress it up in butter and cream sauces to make it taste good.
"When you go to the store or market, don't buy vegetables based on what you have in mind for dinner tonight -- buy whatever is freshest and improvise from there," Casella says. "One time I went to the store in Georgia, and they didn't have any fresh vegetables. The only thing they had good was a pumpkin and a cabbage, so I used the pumpkin and the cabbage, and I cooked around that," says the chef, who ended up with a pumpkin-curry rice dish that had his guests begging for more.
And don't forget the herbs. The Beppe restaurateur became famous for the extensive herb garden he grew behind his family restaurant in his native Lucca, a small town in the Tuscan region of Italy. Fresh herbs -- thyme, rosemary, Italian parsley, or whatever you can find -- can add oodles of flavor to your cooking without the fat and calories, Casella says. Throw them in soups, stir them into tomato-based sauces, and use them on meat and fish for delectable low-fat dishes.
No need to clean your plate
Valerie Willsea, a Weight Watchers leader in San Francisco, says the main problem with Italian food isn't the food itself, but the size of the portions Americans have grown accustomed to eating. "The killer with Italian food is the portions," says Willsea, an Italian-American herself. "Most people have no idea what a cup of pasta looks like unless they measure it out at home and look at it," which is exactly what she recommends you do.
Pasta itself is low in fat, but not in calories -- about 150 per cup, and that doesn't include any sauce, meat or cheese. Most Americans, the weight-loss expert says, need to learn how to recognize when they're full and to stop eating at that point. "Don't be afraid not to clean your plate," she says. "With my Catholic school background, I grew up learning it was a sin to waste good food. I never even asked myself if I was full. Today I always ask my children, 'Are you full?' before I offer seconds."
When cooking at home, Willsea recommends bulking up your pasta dishes up by adding sauted vegetables like zucchini or broccoli to the sauces. These vitamin-rich veggies will fill you up while adding very few calories to your meal. And of course, choose tomato-based sauces instead of fatty cream sauces, such as an alfredo or carbonara sauce. If your recipes call for cheese, use part-skim ricotta, mozzarella, or even cottage cheese. (Fat-free cheeses often don't cook well; you may need to experiment to find the good ones.)
Eating out: The biggest challenge
Eating out, especially Italian, often presents the hardest challenge to dieters. Yale dietitian Lisa Tartamella says that one meal at an Italian restaurant will not necessarily sabotage all of your dietary efforts. You shouldn't be afraid to indulge yourself occasionally on a nice meal, even when dieting. There are, however, a few things you can do to keep from going overboard at an Italian restaurant. Tartamella offers the following tips for those big nights out:
- Plan ahead. If you know you're going to have a big meal one day, compensate by eating lighter meals the rest of the day, and/or by working in an extra exercise session.
- Save your calories for the main dishes. Don't fill up on bread and appetizers. Place the breadbasket on the opposite side of the table, or ask the waiter not to bring one. And if you do eat bread, don't saturate it with olive oil. Olive oil is a heart-healthy fat, but that doesn't reduce its calories.
- Load up on greens. Order a salad or minestrone soup before your meal. The veggies in them are great for your health, and they'll help curb your appetite when the main dishes arrive. Just be sure you order dressing on the side and use it sparingly.
- Ask how your entree is prepared. When ordering meat and fish dishes, ask how they're prepared, and try to stay away from fried foods. There is a huge fat and calorie difference, for example, between grilled calamari and fried calamari.
- Consider soup. Try ordering a small bowl of pasta on the side instead of an entree, or share a full plate with someone else. And be selective about the sauce. At home, you can produce a lovely low-fat Alfredo, but at most restaurants, marinara and other tomato-based sauces are a much better bet than cream sauces.
- Drink wine. Red wine in moderation has actually been shown to be good for the heart. Moderation means no more than one (five-ounce) glass per day for women and one or two for men.
- Be conscious as you eat, and you'll know sooner when you're full. When you start to feel full, don't be afraid to ask the waiter to take your plate away (or wrap the rest to go).
- Budget your calories if you're having sweets. If you're planning on having dessert, set aside some of your calorie and fat allowances throughout the meal so you won't have to feel guilty about enjoying something sweet. Fruit-based desserts may be your best option, but not if they're slathered in cream or wrapped in butter-laden pastry.
- Go light on the milk when having coffee. Ask for your cappuccino with low-fat milk, or go for espresso.
Finally and most importantly, enjoy your meal! Eat slowly, and savor each bite.
Interviews with Cesare Casella, chef/owner, Beppe, New York; Lisa Tartamella, MS, RD, registered dietitian at Yale-New Haven Hospital; Valerie Willsea, Weight Watchers leader; Diary of a Tuscan Chef: Recipes & Memories of Good Times and Great Food, by Cesare Casella, Doubleday, Italian Cooking for Dummies, by Cesare Casella, Hungry Minds Inc., 1998 Pasta Nutrition, National Pasta Association http://www.ilovepasta.org/nutrition.html
The Healthy Cook on Pasta -- Nutrition, Medinformation.com, http://myhealth.medformation.com/Feature.asp?FeatureID=577