Lighten Up!

Lighten Up!

Traditional Italian Can Be a Nutritional Dream

Let’s be honest. Italian restaurants are not generally at the top of the list for weight-conscious diners. It takes more willpower than most of us can summon to eliminate the buttery, cheesy, fried specialties of the house, daintily nibble at a mountain of pasta, or scrupulously avoid a creamy cannoli finish. But you can have your biscotti and eat it too. The healthy Mediterranean diet is quickly becoming the pick of the house for more than just its legendary nutritional prowess … an entire culture of craveable, flavorful and sustainable foods is on the plate.

In fact, says Technomic’s Lizzy Freier, Italian food that conveys quality and tradition is not generally smothered in cheese, sauce, and butter. Opting for grilled instead of fried, fresh herbs and spices in lieu of heavy sauces, and pizza with thinner crusts and less cheese is a natural complement to the authenticity movement.

“It’s not about eliminating pasta or pizza, but preparing it differently, emphasizing ingredients like rosemary, garlic and lemon to evoke the Mediterranean flavor,” says Freier. Also enjoying the new Italian light are the growing number of vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free and low-sodium diners.

“While we don’t necessarily go to Italian restaurants to eat healthy, there are many opportunities for operators to offer lighter options and good reason to do so … it eliminates the veto factor in a group that may include both indulgent and mindful diners,” says Freier.

The heightened awareness of the Mediterranean diet is a trend that registered dietitians champion with great enthusiasm, including Nicole Ring. As Vice President of Nutrition Strategy for Healthy Dining, Ring’s worked with hundreds of restaurants on “all things nutrition.” She’s thrilled to see the trends sparked as a result of the Mediterranean focus, such as:

  • Herbs and olive oil for flavor
  • Wood-grilling vs “sautéing”
  • More poultry and seafood in place of red meat
  • Unique whole grains (farro and spelt)
  • Whole grain pasta and pizza crusts

In addition to the above, her seasoned advice for incorporating the tenets of the diet, easily and profitably: “Whole fruits; vegetables, beans, nuts, herbs and spices; healthy fats from avocados; fermented dairy products like yogurt.” Because the Mediterranean diet is all about savoring food that also honors your health, she says, market the flavor and sensory profiles of these foods. Cite the source of ingredients, such as Greek olives or ‘Tuscan-style’ to appeal to today’s globally sophisticated diners.

Some restaurants that are keeping the Mediterranean health promise, according to Ring:


05 01 lighten up 1Zoes Kitchen – an entirely Mediterranean menu that includes quinoa salad, kabobs, roasted veggies, braised white beans, hummus and whole wheat pitas.


05 01 lighten up 2Au Bon Pain – standouts include roasted eggplant soup, chickpea & roasted tomato salad and blueberry chia hot cereal.


05 01 lighten up 3Noodles & Co. - whole grain Tuscan Fresca, Mediterranean sandwiches and salads


05 01 lighten up 4California Pizza Kitchen - Mediterranean ingredients abound in small plates, entrees, salads, pizzas and a creative shrimp scampi zucchini.


05 01 lighten up 5Carrabba’s - Tuscan wood-grilled chicken and shrimp


05 01 lighten up 6Seeing the Light: BRAVO Italiana Cucina

Mention healthy Italian dining out and you’re sure to hear some bravos … BRAVO Italiana Cucina that is, one of the pioneers in designing a slimmed down menu. Brian Harvey, Bravo’s Culinary Director and Chef, described their thoughtful approach to the ‘under 650 calorie’ offerings four years ago: “We recognized the increasing demand for this, and knew it was a direction we needed to go, and give diners another reason to come back.” Still, he knew there were challenges in the form of hungry male diners who might feel less than satisfied with a lower-cal entree. “We wanted to make sure that lighter didn’t mean less food, and that we were still serving a substantial portion.”

The answer was part prep and part ingredients, and smart choices were made on both fronts. At 50 to 100 calories an ounce, sautéing in oil was replaced with judicious use of olive oil spray, slashing the calories down to 10. Herbs, spices, citrus and acid were mixed in for flavor without calories. The biggest challenge, Harvey revealed, was the lack of fat in which to cook that hallmark of Italian food, garlic, so using moisture from the ingredients was key. Because pasta quickly racks up the calorie count, the dishes use less pasta and bulk up with veggies like roasted artichokes and grilled onions.

The ‘light’ grilled salmon, chicken caprese and spicy angel hair pasta won over even non-dieters with their bold flavor, and Harvey proudly points out that six of their overall best-selling items are from the original light menu. The entrees have been mainstreamed into the regular menu, with a separate section now reserved for gluten-free dishes. The selection, not the waistline, will continue to expand in 2017, as calorie counts are rolled out on all menus, which Harvey predicts will make an impact on diners’ selections.

One final tip on steering diners toward the light: “We encourage our chefs to get out and talk to diners personally about their preferences. Servers were asked to actively promote the light dishes, and assure guests the meal was full of flavor and a great value from a portion and price standpoint.”


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