Let’s Go Out for... Italian

Whether you’re at the local pizza parlor or a white-napkin establishment with a famous chef, here’s how to mangia bene.
Where to GoLets Go Out For

Since tastes vary, endorsements are little guarantee you’ll be just as fond of an Italian restaurant as your mom, neighbor, or some guy on Yelp. So how can you size up a new Italian restaurant? Take these tips from Michael Wilson, editor-in-chief of La Cucina Italiana.

Look for a brief menu
Without your even examining the details, the length of an Italian menu can quickly give you clues about the quality of the restaurant, says Wilson. “Fewer items on the menu, and fewer ingredients in each item, are a good sign,” he says. “An Italian salad should have perhaps four or five total ingredients, and there should be a few dishes under each category of pasta or risotto, not a dozen.”

Don’t be fooled by fresh
Yes, Italian cooking is all about fresh, local ingredients, which gave rise to the country’s regional cuisine. But ironically, homemade fresh pasta may be the one exception. “Fresh pasta is no guarantee of quality,” says Wilson. “There is a great tradition of dried pasta, and some dishes are actually better and more authentic with dried pasta.” You should see a mix of dried and homemade fresh pastas on the menus, but not more of the latter.

Look for regional names
When you see geographical designations among the ingredients listed on the menu, like “Balsamico de Modena” and “Prosciutto di Parma,” it suggests that the restaurant is thoughtful about its ingredients and their origins, advises Wilson.

“Hey, Know a Good Italian Place?”

America has no shortage of great Italian restaurants. You can probably get an excellent meal within an eight-minute drive in any direction. But the little unsung joints that offer great food and make it easier to stay on Plan? Those can be a little harder to find.

That’s where you come in. Please share a little info: What’s your favorite local spot for healthy Italian fare? What dishes do you love there? What substitutions do you ask for? What tips have you picked up that can help others enjoy a healthy Italian meal? Click on our Community Group page for Italian Restaurants and start a new post for your city. You’ll be helping others on the WeightWatchers plan who want local tips on where to get a great Italian meal.

Ask “What region does the chef focus on?”
Much like Italy itself, Italian cuisine is really a loose collection of many regional entities, with tomatoes and olives prospering in the South while more meat, rice and root vegetables appear in the North. A knowledgeable restaurant staffer (like the floor manager) should be able to quickly describe which specific regions in Italy have inspired the menu, says Wilson. Hearing a response to the above question such as, “Our chef cooks Piemontese cuisine, with some Sicilian favorites from his mother thrown in,” is a great sign. If you only get a vague answer like, “We’re Northern Italian,” move on.

Look for small portions
“Portions are a good indicator of quality,” says Wilson. Authentic Italian meals are intended to include multiple courses, so look for pasta dishes about the size of a fist coming out of the kitchen. “A heaping bowl of pasta is a bad sign, and not a good way to start a meal,” says Wilson. If the serving is too small to do the job of an entrée, it’s usually acceptable to request a larger portion as a main course. A place that serves extra-large portions of pasta as its regular dishes may be good for your wallet, but it’s not a sign of quality.

Look for mystery dishes
Unless you are already an expert in Italian cuisine, there should be some unfamiliar items on the menu. “If you recognize every dish on the menu, it’s not going to be an interesting or adventurous experience,” says Wilson. For example, when he sees tripe or rabbit on a menu, he takes it as a positive sign. Even if you don’t order something exotic, having some uncommon dishes on the menu reflects well on the place.

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