Chow Italiano: What to Eat When Not in Rome

Nutrition Action Healthletter Revisits America's Italian Chains


Few of us would sit down to a meal of three Big Macs. Most of us would assume we'd be better off with a dinner of sautéed shrimp with vegetables and pasta. Yet the Shrimp Scampi at Maggiano's Little Italy has about as many calories (1,680) and about as much saturated fat (28 grams) as those big burgers. That's just one of the surprises revealed in Nutrition Action Healthletter's latest look at what's cooking in Italian chains like Olive Garden, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and Maggiano's.

Some of the appetizers, meals, and desserts highlighted in the May issue of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest's flagship publication include:

  • Carrabba's Calamari. You might as well just eat oil-soaked fried breading.Nutrition Action estimates the appetizer has nearly three times more breading than squid. With the Housemade Marinara, one gets 940 calories. But order it with the Spicy Italian Pepper and Lemon Butter Sauce and one hits 1,510 calories and nearly 3 days' worth of saturated fat (53 grams). The latter "should come with a defibrillator," says Nutrition Action.

  • Maggiano's Mom's Lasagna with Meat Sauce. With 1,170 calories, one and a half days' saturated fat (34 g), and over a two-day supply of sodium (3,550 mg) this "could well make Mom a widow," according to Nutrition Action. By contrast, Carrabba's Lasagne has "only" 760 calories, 24 grams of saturated fat, and 2,480 mg sodium.

  • Macaroni Grill's Mama's Trio. Not sure which entrée to order? Why not get three, like Chicken Parmesan, Lasagna Bolognese, and Chicken & Mushroom Cannelloni? The meal's got 1,430 calories, 30 grams of saturated fat, and 3,430 mg of sodium—which might have your heart screaming "mamma mia!"

  • Olive Garden's Chicken Alfredo. When CSPI first examined Italian food in 1994, it called fettuccine Alfredo "a heart attack on a plate." That hard-to-top pejorative certainly applies to this mound of pasta topped with Alfredo sauce and chicken. The nearly 4 cups of white flour pasta swimming in a butter, cheese, and cream sauce is responsible for its 1,440 calories and two and a half days' saturated fat (48 grams). It's about what you'd get in two 14-ounce New York Strip steaks at Outback Steakhouse.

  • Maggiano's Chicken Saltimbocca. Most probably assume that a dish built around chicken breasts is one of the healthier options on the menu. But with 1,690 calories, 28 grams saturated fat, and 3,370 mg sodium, it's among the least healthful, thanks to its prosciutto, provolone, and pile of buttered and oiled white flour pasta.

  • Carrabba's Sogno di Cioccolata. This fudge brownie with chocolate mousse, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce has 1,190 calories, 35g saturated fat, and 22 tsp. added sugar– that's about what you'd get in an entire 9-ounce box of Girl Scout Thin Mints.

"Most Italians would likely be horrified to see the hubcap-sized plates of white flour pasta, fatty meat, and cheese that pass for their native cuisine at American chains like Olive Garden, Maggiano's, and Carrabba's,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley. "And lately, restaurants have started deep-frying their lasagna and ravioli, pouring Alfredo sauce on anything that doesn't move, and selling platters with two or three entrées. The food just keeps getting more fattening."

To their credit, Olive Garden, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and Carrabba's all have a number of entrées under 600 calories, most of which are served with, or have a side option of, vegetables instead of pasta. Olive Garden's Herb-Grilled Salmon for instance, has just 520 calories and a remarkably-low-for-restaurant-fare 500 mg of sodium. Macaroni Grill's Grilled Chicken Spiedini has 410 calories and 990 mg of sodium. (To its discredit, Romano's Macaroni Grill does not currently list complete nutrition information on its website.) All of the numbers used in the Nutrition Action review come from the chains themselves.

Before too long, all restaurant chains will be required to list calories on menus, as they do now in California, New York City, and several other cities and counties. The Obama Administration is finalizing regulations, required by the Affordable Care Act, which will require calories on the menus and menu boards of all chain restaurants with 20 outlets or more.

Until then, Nutrition Action recommends keeping calories under control at Italian chains by skipping bread, looking for items marked "light" or "lower calorie," and ordering veggies as a side dish instead of potatoes or pasta. It may also help to top whole wheat pasta (available at just a few restaurants) with a tomato-based sauce, which will likely have less than half the calories of Alfredo, cream, pesto or butter sauces. Choose seafood or chicken instead of red meat. A typical glass of wine adds about 150 calories.

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