Italian Food Nutrition Facts: Menu Choices and Calories

Best and Worst Health Choices at Italian Restaurants

Pasta primavera
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Italian food is a delicious and popular choice for dining out. Many people love to eat pasta, pizza, and other popular dishes. Choosing a meal at an Italian restaurant may only be difficult because of all the tasty options to choose from.

Italian food is packed with flavor and nutrients from tomatoes, basil, oregano, plenty of vegetables, cheeses, and protein sources. Below, you will find more information on choosing food at an Italian restaurant, including the more nutritious options that might be available to you.

Nutritious Italian Food Choices 

When you order your meal at an Italian restaurant, focus on protein and veggies to make your meal more diet-friendly. Paying attention to portion size is essential. Some starter portions or appetizers are large enough to split between several diners.

Many fresh Italian entrees are made with savory vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, or eggplant, and good sources of fat, like olives or olive oil. If you keep portion sizes small, you can enjoy an antipasto salad or vegetable soup (like minestrone), a small pasta course, and a lean meat and vegetable entree.

Lightly dressed salads and broth-based soups are likely to be lower in calories. Pasta e fagioli (traditional pasta and bean soup) is often hearty enough to be a full meal.

If you love pasta, then enjoy a small plate. Pasta dishes that are lightly tossed in oil and topped with seafood (shrimp, scallops or salmon) and grilled vegetables are generally the best choices. Order whole grain pasta if it is available to increase your fiber intake.

If you order a traditional entree look for selections that include grilled or roasted meats and vegetables. Poultry and seafood dishes are popular in many Italian restaurants and are a good source of protein, nutritious fats, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Vegetarian entrees like grilled eggplant are nutritious options as well.

Almost everyone orders pasta when they visit an Italian restaurant. Spaghetti tops the list as an all-time favorite. The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA FoodData Central for one cup (248g) of spaghetti and meatballs. 

  • Calories: 332
  • Fat: 11.1g
  • Sodium: 682mg
  • Carbohydrates: 42.7g
  • Fiber: 4g
  • Sugars: 5.9g
  • Protein: 14.3g

Less Nutritious Italian Food Choices 

Even though most Italian dishes are made from wholesome, fresh ingredients, that doesn't mean that every dish has an impressive nutrition profile.

Italian food nutrition will also depend on where you choose to dine. If you visit The Olive Garden and order Spaghetti With Traditional Marinara Sauce and Meatballs, you'll consume nearly 700 calories and about 50 grams of fat if you eat the whole meal.

Other Olive Garden choices provide more calories and fat. Fettuccine Alfredo, for example, contains 1010 calories and 56 grams of fat. Lasagna Classico delivers 640 calories and 36 grams of fat, and Eggplant Parmigiana provides 1060 and 54 grams of fat.

If your favorite restaurant serves breadsticks when you sit down at the table, set them aside or ask the server to remove them. And when you scan the menu, be mindful of the words like "alfredo" or "carbonara," as these sauces are almost entirely made from fat. Save your starch calories for the meal.

You should also avoid cured meats and sausages, especially if you are on a low sodium diet. These savory meats are very high in both salt and fat.

Lastly, be mindful of your food portions if you visit an Italian restaurant that serves family-style meals. It is easy to overeat when large bowls of food are placed before you. Some restaurants even have "bottomless" entrees and refill the bowls as you eat.

If you dine family-style, fill your plate once and then savor the meal. Take extras home to enjoy at lunchtime the following day.

Tips For Healthier Choices At An Italian Restaurant

  • Watch portion sizes
  • Choose veggie-centric dishes, such as salads and soups
  • Select grilled or roasted meats, fish, and vegetables (as opposed to breaded and fried)
  • Skip heavier, cream-based sauces such as "Carbonara" or "Alfredo"

Nutritious Italian Recipes

One great way to enjoy nutritious Italian food is to cook your own at home. It's easier to make lower-calorie Italian food in your kitchen. Try any of these recipes: 

You can also try this celebrity-chef-designed recipe for healthy Italian cooking. Season Four MasterChef winner Luca Manfe provides this recipe from his book My Italian Kitchen

Grilled Vegetables With Garlic-Parsley Pesto

  • 4 Italian eggplants (about 1 pound/450 grams each), peeled and cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • Salt
  • 2 cups (480 milliliters) of extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the vegetables
  • 2 medium summer squash, cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • 2 medium zucchinis, cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 ounces (about 1 cup; 200 grams) anchovies marinated in olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
  • ½ cup (120 milliliters) of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup (20 grams) chopped fresh parsley

Prepare the vegetables: Line 2 baking sheets with a double layer of paper towels and lay the eggplant slices over them. Lightly sprinkle with salt. This process is called degorging; it helps to bring the moisture out of the eggplant so that when it's cooked, it will get crisp rather than soggy.

Drizzle a little olive oil into a large sauté pan or grill pan and wipe the pan with a paper towel. Place over medium-high flame and heat until screaming hot. Lay down enough vegetables to fill the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until browned and turning translucent. Drizzle additional olive oil over the vegetables and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until browned on the second side. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (if all your baking sheets are being used for the eggplant, use a platter or a few plates). Season very lightly with salt and pepper.

Continue cooking the squash and zucchini in batches in the same fashion until all slices are cooked. Note that the pan will get hotter as you continue to cook, and the vegetables can burn if you don't keep a watchful eye; you may need to lower the heat a little and cook for a minute or less on each side.

Pat the eggplant slices with paper towels and cook them in the pan the same way you cooked the squash and zucchini, except you'll need about twice as much oil.

Prepare the marinade: In a food processor, combine the olive oil, anchovies, garlic, lemon zest and juice, parsley, and 1 teaspoon of black pepper. Blend for a minute or so. As you may have noticed, we are not adding any salt to the marinade, as the anchovies are already very salty.

Arrange a layer of assorted vegetables in a glass casserole dish or baking dish. Cover with some of the marinades and repeat with additional layers of vegetables and marinade until all the vegetables have been used. Cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.

A Word From Verywell

Italian food is vibrant and delicious, packed with nutrients from vegetables, tomato sauce, grains, meats, herbs, and dairy. Choosing whole-grain options when you can and sticking to leaner sources of protein can help you balance your meals to keep you energized and satisfied.

Remember that eating higher fat and calorie foods, or sugary desserts in moderation is part of any nutritious diet. Focusing on getting plenty of nutrients rather than trying to eliminate specific foods is the key to a nutritious diet.

2 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.
  1. US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs or spaghetti with meat sauce or spaghetti with meat sauce and meatballs. FDC ID: 341059 Food Code:58132310. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service FoodData Central 2020

  2. Olive Garden Italian Kitchen. Nutrition Information (U.S. Restaurants) (.pdf). Orlando, Fla.: Darden Restaurants Olive Garden 2020

By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.