Low-Carb Italian Restaurant Menu Choices

Detail of antipasti platter at Fratelli Burgio
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There are plenty of situations in which you may find yourself dining at a restaurant that serves Italian cuisine. If you are following a low-carb eating plan, this may present a challenge. Spaghetti and meatballs, brick-oven pizza, and warm, crusty garlic bread don't have much of a place in your diet if you are trying to reduce carbohydrates.

Traditional Italian cuisine and low-carb eating might seem incompatible, but the fact is, Italian restaurants serve plenty of meals without pasta (and other starchy dishes) as their centerpiece. Finding them is easier if you start to think like an Italian!

Can You Order Pasta?

The idea that Italians eat nothing but pasta is a myth. A true traditional Italian meal is actually quite balanced in that it includes only about 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 for digestion (the 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 only a cup of al dente pasta. The portion sizes here are much larger, making them very high in carbs. If you keep the portion size small (by sharing a dish or taking half home for later) you may be able to consume some pasta dishes.

Pasta cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index than pasta that is cooked until soft. Eaten in moderation, al dente pasta can be an acceptable part of some low-carb eating plans.

However, many diners are likely to eat the full plate of pasta that is put in front of them when dining in an Italian restaurant. Thus, it's best to just let your eyes skip over the pasta and pizza sections of the menu. There are other smart options that are low-carb friendly.

If You Skip Pasta, What's Left? 

You may be surprised to find how many low-carb offerings are hiding in plain sight under other headings on an Italian menu.

Italians are known for shopping daily for the fresh produce, seafood, and meat which they prepare simply to let the flavors shine. These are your best bets when dining at an Italian restaurant. Also, be sure to take advantage of the olives that may be placed on the table before ordering your meal. A few olives contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

Olive oil's antioxidants and heart-healthy fats are part of the reason why the Mediterranean Diet is so healthy, and it fits perfectly into your low-carb eating plan. If you find your eyes drifting towards those tempting pasta dishes on the menu, feel free to ask for the pasta “toppings” on a bed of vegetables, or on their own as a side dish. Pesto on chicken and vegetables is delicious.

Lastly, eat slowly and enjoy your meal. Italians don’t hastily gobble down their food. They eat their main meal leisurely over several small courses, ideally with much conversation and laughter.

The key to enjoying a low-carb meal when dining out is to eat like an Italian. Slow down, savor your food, and engage in conversation with your dining companions to fully experience and enjoy time spent with friends and family.

Dining Tips by Course

You should be able to find acceptable choices in every section of the Italian restaurant menu.

Appetizers (Antipasti)

In Italian, “pasto” means “meal” and “antipasti” or “antipasto” means “before the meal.” Many antipasti dishes are made with fresh meat, seafood, and vegetables, providing lots of low-carb options.

Consider these smart choices for low-carb eaters.

  • 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, served either cold or hot, and the shrimp is often sautéed with garlic and wine.
  • Grilled, roasted, or marinated vegetables will help to fill you up without boosting your carb intake too high and you may be able to eat them alongside steamed clams or mussels for a full meal.

Soup (Zuppa)

Italians love soup, and in Italy, soups are often served instead of pasta. Many Italian soups are low in carbs, although some have bread, pasta, or beans in them. However, a single cup of soup may not contain enough of those high-carb foods to make an impact on your overall eating plan.

Since there are so many different soups, the exact carb count depends on the cook, but generally, look for thinner soups.

  • Italian wedding soup is made with spinach and meatballs and can be satisfying as a low-carb meal.
  • Seafood soups with clams, mussels, and other fish or shellfish provide protein without too many carbs.
  • Stracciatella is a sort of Italian eggdrop soup that is delicious and low-carb friendly.
  • Vegetable-heavy minestrone is a smart choice as long as there is not a lot of pasta added to the dish.

Salad (Insalata)

Salads abound in Italy and are almost always a good bet. The key is to avoid croutons or other starchy toppings. For example, panzanella (a salad of bread and tomato) would not be an acceptable choice for a low-carb diner.

An Italian salad may contain any fresh vegetables, cheeses, and, of course, olive oil and vinegar. Look for these low-carb menu choices as well:

  • Caprese salad made from mozzarella, tomato, and basil
  • Italian chopped salad usually made with olives, chopped greens, and savory vegetables

Meat and Seafood (Secondi)

This is the main part of the meal for someone eating a diet low in carbohydrates. Most of the meats and seafood on an Italian menu have little starch or sugar added, so these make smart selections when you want to keep your eating plan on track.

Avoid breaded meats (such as chicken or veal parmesan or Milanese), and you'll be 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, avoid red sauces, or go for tomato sauces labeled “fresh.”

Some low carb dishes on the menu may be made with veal. If you don't eat veal, you may be able to get the same preparation with a different meat, such as chicken.

  • Osso bucco is veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine, and broth.
  • Saltimbocco is veal lined or wrapped with prosciutto and sage; marinated in wine, oil or saltwater

Piccata and scaloppine dishes (such as chicken piccata or veal scaloppine) may also be acceptable depending on how much breading is used to prepare them. However, they are likely to contain far fewer carbs than many other dishes on the menu.


In Italy, meals are often ended with fresh fruit. Needless to say, the richer desserts are well-endowed with carbohydrates, so best to stay away from these or just have a taste of a fellow diner’s dessert.

For example:

  • Cannolis are often served in pairs and might contain up to 50 grams of carbohydrate or more if you consume the whole plate. However, if you eat half of one—you might be about to keep your carb intake to 14 grams.
  • Panna cotta is Italian custard served cold, usually topped with caramel.
    It may provide 40 grams of carbohydrate or more. But if you ask for
    just the custard with no sauce, you can reduce the carbs by nearly half.
  • Semifreddo is similar to ice cream and might contain 50 grams of carbohydrate or more.
  • Tiramisu is a layered dessert that usually includes cake, cream, and fruit. Depending on ingredients, it may provide more than 50 grams of carbohydrate.

Lastly, consider ordering a cappuccino or other low-sugar espresso drink to end your meal. A beautifully crafted beverage can be just as satisfying than many of the sweet treats.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Zhu Y, Hollis JH. Soup consumption is associated with a reduced risk of overweight and obesity but not metabolic syndrome in US adults: NHANES 2003-2006PLoS One. 2013;8(9):e75630. Published 2013 Sep 30. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075630

  4. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Diet and Health. Making The Change To The New Eating Pattern. Eat for Life: The Food and Nutrition Board's Guide to Reducing Your Risk of Chronic Disease.

  5. Trichopoulou A, Martínez-González MA, Tong TY, et al. Definitions and potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet: views from experts around the worldBMC Med. 2014;12:112. Published 2014 Jul 24. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-12-112

  6. Pastry, Italian, with cheese. USDA FoodData Central.

  7. Tiramisu. USDA FoodData Central.

By Laura Dolson
Laura Dolson is a health and food writer who develops low-carb and gluten-free recipes for home cooks.