Follow these dos and don’ts the next time a pasta craving strikes.
Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree

We love Italian in almost any form, but some menu items are better choices than others. Nutrition aside, it’s a good idea to know which dishes are simply fillers and which ones are rock stars. Not all Italian restaurants are equal of course; use your judgment and ask around for what the best menu picks are.

5 Dishes to Skip:

1. Mozzarella Sticks

This deep-fried appetizer isn’t worth stealing calories from the rest of your meal. The cheese also somehow manages to disappear under that heavy breading or becomes so molten hot in the fryer that you can’t even taste it. Make our low-calorie version at home instead. 

2. Bread Sticks

Bread sticks are usually made from pizza dough. Dip in the requisite marinara and you basically have a poorer version of a deconstructed pizza. Save your carbs for the actual pie.

3. Fettuccine Alfredo

Beloved, yes, but not authentically Italian. Butter, cream, and cheese also make this sauce a calorie bomb, and mask the texture and flavor of great pasta. Save your splurge for tiramisu. Make our version (half the fat and calories) at home for a treat instead.

4. Pasta With a Twist

Skip the Cajun-ified pasta, the buffalo wing Alfredo, and the baked potato-themed risotto unless the restaurant isn’t in fact Italian. Italian food is simple and usually all about glorifying a great ingredient. These gimmicky dishes often do the opposite.

5. Calamari (with exceptions)

Unless the restaurant is somewhere near the coast or is known for this squid appetizer, go ahead and skip it. Calamari can often be overly battered or fried, and can taste rubbery if not fresh or made well.

5 Dishes to Order:

1. Vegetable Sides

Italians love their peak season vegetables even more than meats (and sometimes more than pizza and pasta). Beautiful, simple preparation and limited availability makes them a must-order.

2. House-Made Ricotta

You’ll often see house-made ricotta as an appetizer with crostini and honey or in baked pasta dishes. Many restaurants don’t bother making their own, but those who do will reward you with a lusciously creamy mixture that’s unbelievably good.

3. Caesar Salad

This dish sounds ordinary, but done well it’s worth getting every time (and if they make it tableside, order it just for the show). It doesn’t get much better than super crunchy Romaine with a Parmesan-and-anchovy-laced Caesar dressing, and it’s a great way to start your meal.

4. Gnocchi

If you’ve only tried store bought gnocchi, forget everything you know about this dish and order it. Restaurant gnocchi is so ethereally light, it almost levitates out of the bowl. A very light sauce or just a butter sauté is all they need.

5. Charcuterie

Unlike most of Europe, charcuterie has yet to catch on in the U.S. (blame strict health codes that have ruled most curing and fermenting processes unsafe). Many chefs now either source great charcuterie or make their own, improving on old techniques and experimenting with new ones. Order a small selection to keep your sodium numbers in check for the evening.