Let’s Go Out for…Italian: What to Eat

Whether you’re at the local pizza parlor or a white-napkin establishment with a famous chef, here’s how to mangia bene.
Published November 14, 2015

What to Know     What to Eat

The tips below will let you lighten up your favorite dishes while keeping them hearty and tasty. Here’s to relishing real Italian, while toasting “Salute” — to health!

Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad 
This antipasto is simply a plate of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, often with olive oil, pepper, or balsamic vinegar. It can be a good starter — if you go easy on the cheese and oil. Fresh mozzarella clocks in at 3 Points™ value per ounce. For a typical restaurant portion, you’ll be looking at about 6-8 Points value in cheese.

Lighten it up: If you’re going to have cheese with your entrée, consider having a peppery arugula salad with balsamic vinegar and tomatoes (0 Points value) to start.

Fritto Misto

Fritto Misto 
This appetizer contains breaded and fried chunks of cod, scallop, shrimp and squid, is a crunchy treat that eats up 15-23 Points value in a serving.

Lighten it up: If you crave a nibble, order this as a shared appetizer, and dip in with marinara instead of aioli. Better yet, order grilled calamari as an app (just 1 Points value per half cup).

Pappardelle Bolognese

Pappardelle Bolognese 
This authentic Bolognese dish has tomato sauce made with bits of pork, veal and beef. Typical restaurant servings (about 12 ounces of pasta and 1 cup of sauce) run about 14 Points value.

Lighten it up: Switch to pasta with marinara sauce and order a small piece of chicken, pork or veal with it. And consider ordering whole-wheat pasta when available; it has more fiber and will save you 1 Points value per cup (5 versus 6).

Tortelloni alla Ricotta

Tortelloni alla Ricotta 
Stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortelloni are usually filled with ricotta cheese or meat; either will cost you 4 Points value per 2/3 cup, and a typical restaurant portion of 3 cups can run 17 Points value.

Lighten it up: Avoid Alfredo and pesto sauce; marinara is a lighter choice. Or consider asking for broth instead ("en brodo"). You’ll have a delicious, authentic dish and could save 3 Points value over the marinara.

Risotto with Mushrooms

Risotto with Mushrooms 
Risotto is cooked slowly to attain a creamy consistency, but many chefs also add butter and cheese to make it even creamer. Hence, just 1 cup can contain 10 to 15 Points value — and a typical restaurant serving can run 2 cups.

Lighten it up: Order risotto with olive oil and just a pat of butter; it can trim off 3 Points value. Mushrooms are a great choice for flavoring, as are traditional additions of seafood, squash, peas and saffron. Going with pancetta will add 4 Points value.

Polletto alla Diavola

Polletto alla Diavola 
This grilled young chicken with spicy sauce is a good choice. Grilling helps eliminate some fat, and spicy pepper sauce adds big flavor for relatively few calories. A typical half chicken runs about 25 Points value.

Lighten it up: Removing the skin and getting your sauce on the side may knock it down to about 15 Points value.

Cotoletta alla Milanese

Cotoletta alla Milanese
In this dish, a veal chop (or chicken breast) is pounded thin, then coated with egg and bread crumbs before being sautéed in oil with garlic to a crispy finish. One serving is about 8 Points value.

Lighten it up: Instead of Milanese, ask the kitchen to grill a veal chop or chicken breast with some herbs. A typical boneless veal chop (about 3 oz before cooking) runs about 6 Points values.


This traditional preparation of whole broiled, baked or grilled sea bass yields just 1 Points value per 3 oz of fish. In one of the tastiest (and healthiest) preparations, the chef encrusts the fish in salt and bakes it. When the salt is cracked and removed before serving, it reveals moist, succulent steamed fish, usually served with a touch of olive oil.

Lighten it up: Some restaurants go heavy on oil and butter, so ask for yours on the side. And consider replacing the side of pasta with a vegetable.


Made with ladyfinger cookies, mascarpone cheese and cream, this slab of sweetness is the reigning queen of the dessert tray in the Italian-American restaurant. Tiramisu often packs 15 Points value into a small slice. Other common Italian sweets are similar: A cannoli will run about 13 Points value, and a gelato (a creamy, dense ice cream with almost no air) runs about 7 Points value per half cup.

Lighten it up: Get one for the table to share.

Fresh Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar 
Take a lesson from the Italians and get your sugar fix from something that has a stem. Request sliced strawberries with balsamic vinegar; the sweet-bitter flavor makes for a memorable meal-ender. A liberal sprinkling of sugar will kick it up only 1 Points value.

*Given that ingredients, cooking methods, and portion sizes can vary greatly among restaurants, all PersonalPoints values for restaurant dishes are estimates.

Italian 101

It’s All Gravy

While there are many varieties of pasta sauce, they fall into these main categories: 

About 3 Points value per half cup
Simple tomato sauce (known as salsa al pomodoro in southern Italy, or marinara in the United States) is usually the best choice. Adding meat (making it a Bolognese), fish or cheese can double the Points value. 

Vodka sauce
About 5 Points value per half cup
This is really just marinara sauce with heavy cream, butter and vodka, but people think of it as its own variety. 

About 14 Points value per half cup
Made with heavy cream, butter and Parmesan cheese, the nefarious Alfredo sauce is your worst choice If you love Alfredo sauce, try to balance the fat by choosing a dish with vegetables or protein, like pasta primavera with chicken. 

Olive oil-based sauces
About 7 Points value per half cup
Unlike Alfredo, most “white” sauces that aren’t made with cheese use olive oil as the base and then cut it with white wine or broth. A teaspoon of olive oil has about 1 Points value (a half-cup has 33); a simple “oil and garlic” pasta dish may be slicked with about one-third a cup of oil. A typical white clam sauce can run 5 to 7 Points value per half cup. 

Pesto sauce
About 19 Points value per half cup
This Northern Italian sauce is made with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, basil and Parmesan cheese. While it can be highly fattening, the strong flavor will let you use much less of it than you would marinara sauce. You might drizzle 4 tablespoons (for 9 Points value) on a dish of pasta.

Menu Decoder Al Dente: It literally means “to the teeth,” but this term means you want your pasta firm in the center (not overcooked). “There’s no need to ask for this — you can assume it will be cooked this way in a quality Italian restaurant,” says Brandwein.

Arrabbiata: An “angry” (spicy) red tomato sauce from the region around Rome. Red chilies kick up the heat. A good choice. 

Arrosto: Roasted. 

Burrata: A trendy, decadent cheese from Puglia that’s filled with cream. 

Caponata: Italy’s answer to ratatouille, this Sicilian dish of eggplant, garlic, peppers and other vegetables is served as an appetizer or as a companion to fish or bread. 

Carbonara: A hearty meal of pasta in bacon or pork fat, with eggs and cheese. It can pack 16 Points value per cup. 

Crudo: Literally “raw,” crudo on Italian menus refers to raw fish in citrus and oil. Think ceviche. 

Fra diavolo: A term meaning “brother devil” usually means a dish has red sauce spiked with red pepper or cayenne. 

Fresh pasta: Unlike dried pasta, fresh pasta is soft before cooking and includes a large number of egg yolks. It’s most popular for stuffed and shaped pastas that are made onsite. 

Fritto: Fried. 

Gnocchi: These Italian dumplings are made with potato or, sometimes, cheese. One cup of potato gnocchi has 7 Points value per cup; cheese kicks it up to 17. 

Mozzarella di bufala — Cheese made from the milk of domestic water buffalo is higher in protein, fat and minerals than cow’s milk mozzarella, and has about 4 Points value per ounce. 

Polenta: A creamy porridge made of ground cornmeal. "Be aware it may be loaded with cheese or cream," says Dobbins. Plain Polenta has about 7 Points value per cup. 

Zabaglione: An egg, liquor and sugar sauce that often dresses desserts or fruit. It packs about 7 Points value per half cup.