On days that you don’t feel like cooking, what do you do? For many of you, the likely answer is order a pizza. It’s true. The urban Indian audience has been fast developing a taste for Italian food. And it’s not just the promptly delivered, hassle-free pizzas that we go for either. For many of us today, bruschetta, pasta, and lasagna are standard choices when eating out. But what are the implications of an appetite for cheesy pizza, creamy pasta, and gooey lasagna for your heart and waistline? Obviously, adverse. So does that mean you have to give up on your favourite Italian restaurant in favour of your health? Or would you continue your liaison with Italian food, albeit with a guilty conscious? Thankfully, there’s an effective middle path. The two major variables in Italian food are pasta and sauce, and both have the power to steer you towards obesity and heart disease. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that they don’t have to. There are ways to make your experience of dining at an Italian restaurant easier on your conscience and your midsection.

Good things first, authentic Italian is arguably one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. What accounts for this win? The answer is its star ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, oregano, parsley, and basil. Studies have shown that lycopene, which is found in tomatoes, may help prevent breast cancer. One of the best ways to get cancer-fighting lycopene into your system is by consuming cooked tomato products: half a cup of tomato sauce has more than 20 milligrams. Plus, garlic, and traditional Italian herbs and spices like oregano, parsley, and basil are great sources of vitamins A and C. Olive oil is known to help lower cholesterol, fight heart disease, and burn belly fat.

Notice how melted cheese isn’t on that list of power Italian staples? Italians typically use Parmesan or other hard cheeses instead, grated in small amounts for a big flavour boost. It’s the Americanised versions of Italian dishes that typically tend to be loaded with fat and calories. And it is here that you have to be careful. Here are a few guidelines on how to choose right from amongst your favourites when eating Italian.


Pasta:

Pasta with sauce

Pasta is basically just dough made from durum wheat and water, extruded or stamped into various shapes and typically cooked in boiling water. It provides quick burning carbs and is lower on the calorie meter than traditional Indian staples like steamed rice. However, it’s not the pasta but the sauce that you need to be careful about. Sauces are the big players in Italian cuisine. As such, choosing your sauce carefully is crucial to your nutritional success. Marinara is a smooth basic tomato sauce that is virtually fat-free and delivers at least one serving of fruit in the form of antioxidant-packed tomatoes. Go for Arrabiata if you like your food spicy. It is basically the same as Marinara, but with red pepper flakes that give you an instant burn. Pesto is high on fat content, but most of that is healthy monounsaturated fat from olive oil. Besides, the addition of basil and garlic adds a concentrated punch of cancer-fighting compounds. Butter and Parmesan offers just fat from the sauce and quick-burning carbs from the pasta. Alfredo is the same as Butter and Parmesan, but with the addition of heavy cream. If you are looking for something heart-healthy and light, this is not the sauce for you.


Pizza:

Pizza

Pizzas are family farourites. But a careless order can turn your pizza into a fat-loaded nutritional disaster. Opt for whole-wheat thin crusts instead of cheese-filled or deep dish ones. Veggie toppings are a good call. Think tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, onions, garlic, and peppers. Skip the pepperoni, meatballs, and sausages – they add more calories than you might be prepared to bargain for. If you want meat on your pizza, go for chicken chunks. Avoid extra cheese. You could even ask for lesser cheese or no cheese at all and simply sprinkle a spoonful of Parmesan on top for flavour.


Lasagna:

Lasagna

While the traditional recipe can be effectively altered at home to cut the calorie content, the restaurant versions are so loaded with fat that it is all but impossible to order a lasagna without dealing a heavy nutritional blow to your body. If you frequent Italian restaurants, it is probably a good idea to give this comfort food a miss.


Bruschetta:

Bruschetta

Love bruschettas? This Italian version of chips and salsa has much more going for it than the bottomless baskets of fried tortillas. A full order will run about 600 calories — perfect for a table of four. Opt for the mussels. Low in fat and packed with protein, they make a good start to your meal.


Penne alla Vodka:

Penne alla vodka

Here’s a tricky one. The alcohol gets cooked off, but before it goes it helps extract flavours that would otherwise remain hidden in the tomatoes. However, the caliber of the sauce depends entirely on what’s used in the house recipe. Ask your server if your dish is closer in color to the red of tomato soup or the washed-out pink of white zinfandel wine. If it’s the latter, look elsewhere.


Chicken Marsala:

Chicken Marsala

Made with chicken cutlets, mushrooms, and Marsala wine, this preparation has all the potential for being full of health if the original recipe is followed. However, more often than not, in restaurants chefs get carried away with the prosciutto and oil and this simple staple may pack in a whopping 900 calories or more.

Cannoli

Cannoli

This authentic Sicilian dessert consists of pastry dough stuffed with sweetened ricotta, a cheese that shares much in common nutritionally with cottage cheese. As long as the portion size is reasonable, cannoli is any day preferable over a 700-calorie slice of tiramisu. To keep it around 200 calories, look for a piece about 4 inches long. If served two to a plate, share them.

Gelato:

Gelato

The Italian ice cream is made with milk instead of heavy cream. Although that doesn’t make it a zero-impact food, but it is undoubtedly a massive step above Haagen-Dazs.

Now that you have the facts, tips, and tricks down, head out to your favourite Italian restaurant with confidence and enjoy a guilt-free Italian feast!