The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is Italian Food Fattening?

Subscribing To The “Abbondanza” Myth Can Pack On The Pounds

I have an acquaintance who is a real “meat and potatoes” kind of guy. Lately he's been skipping the potatoes. He's hitting middle age, his hairline is receding and his waistline is expanding. And he believes he can ameliorate all of this – or at least the waistline part – by eschewing any and all forms of fat and carbohydrate. This puts us on a collision course because he believes Italian food is inherently fattening. His bias is common: all he envisions when he thinks of Italian food is overloaded pizza and heaping plates of pasta. And what is his idea of an “authentic” Italian restaurant? Olive Garden, of course. Uffa!

There is a gulf as vast as the Atlantic between real Italian food as it is traditionally prepared and consumed in Italy and the stuff that is served in the big American chain “Italian” restaurants. Believe me when I say the whole“abbondanza” concept is an American marketing gimmick that stereotypes Italians and Italian food. Do Italians like to eat? About as much as they like to breathe. But do they routinely sit down with piles of steaming pasta on plates the size of hubcaps. Never. Do they throw everything but the kitchen sink on top of a pizza that's as big as a trash can lid? Unheard of. And yet, that's the way most Americans think of Italian food.

A friend of mine runs a local Italian restaurant. He is originally from a village near Naples and I ride him all the time about his menu and his portions. When he serves me, I tell him, “Bring me a plate of pasta like your mama would do.” That means I want a portion about the size of a closed fist. To everybody else, he brings out pasta on platters. Why? Because “that's what the customers expect.” And there are a number of things he wishes he could take off his menu. They're not Italian. But because the locals think they are, he has to serve these dishes in these monstrous proportions or else people go looking for an Olive Garden.

Back to the question at the top of the page: is Italian food fattening? If you're eating at a typical American chain restaurant, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” To that end, my carbo-phobic friend is right.

Olive Garden, the place that invites you to “experience today's Italy,” serves a fried lasagna over Alfredo sauce that weighs in at 1,030 calories and will provide you with two-and-a-half days worth of saturated fat. (We won't discuss the fact that nobody in Italy fries lasagna and nobody there knows what “Alfredo sauce” is.) Want a “Tour of Italy?” Better be prepared to pack 1,450 calories for your journey. Bring along a couple of extra bags for the 165% of your daily saturated fat allowance and the 160% of your days' sodium.

How about Maggiano's? Recently voted America's most popular Italian chain restaurant, they'll only saddle you with with a baked rigatoni that will cost you 1,390 calories or a gnocchi with vodka cream sauce that's good for 1,220.

Or there's the “Mama's Trio” at Romano's Macaroni Grill. At 1,290 calories, it's certainly enough for a trio and the whopping 190% and 136% worth of your days' saturated fat and sodium intake are more than enough for three.

Carrabba's wants you to be healthy, so they serve whole wheat pasta – and 1,349 calories with their Fettuccine Weesie, which also contains 57 grams of saturated fat and an unconscionable 2,938 milligrams of sodium.

Now to be absolutely fair to these establishments, they all offer lower calorie menus. Carrabba's has a number of dishes that clock in at fewer than 600 calories and Olive Garden has begun serving small plates that are far more reasonable than their regular fare. But therein lies the issue: when it comes to real Italian food, it should all be small plates.

Food is an intrinsic element of Italian culture. Italians eat often and they eat well. But they do not eat like pigs. There are no places that offer “all you can eat” in Italy. Restaurants do not serve “endless” this or “bottomless” that. People who participate in such behavior are rightly frowned upon as gluttons. Or Americans. Only in America do we gauge success by excess. Only in the United States is value determined by size. Early Italian immigrants were astounded by the plenitude of foodstuffs available to them in their new country. Such abundance was not only unobtainable back in the Old World, it was unthinkable. Especially meat. Having meat on a daily basis was an extravagance afforded only to the very rich. Wanting to establish the fact that they had “arrived” and were prosperous, many newly-minted Italian-Americans began to capitalize on this bounty, and so the concept of Italian-American food was born in the old Italian-American neighborhoods. Non-Italians who ventured into their city's version of “Little Italy” immediately assumed this was the way all Italians ate and “abbondanza” became synonymous with Italian food.

And so my friends in the restaurant business are forced by economic necessity to perpetuate the stereotype. If they don't serve endless salads and breadsticks and bottomless bowls of soup and heaping platters of spaghetti and meatballs like the chain places do, they risk going under. After a hundred years of exposure, Americans are conditioned to these things and expect them when they walk into an “Italian” restaurant.

When people think about healthy eating, one diet comes to the forefront: the Mediterranean diet. Unlike the typical Western diet, the Mediterranean diet de-emphasizes meat and meat products. It is based principally on consumption of fish and seafood, legumes, unrefined cereal grains, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products like cheese and yogurt. The diet also promotes moderate wine consumption. And guess what, folks? That is the essence of the true Italian diet. It's not about piling enough pasta for six people on a plate, drowning it in a gallon of red sauce, and serving it up to one person. It doesn't center on seeing how much crap you can slap on an enormous pizza. Real Italian food is about quality ingredients prepared in a healthy manner and served in moderate portions.

Bottom line: Is Italian food fattening? No. Not the real stuff. Not traditional Italian food eaten the way countless generations of Italians have eaten it. If you're eating out at a so-called “Italian” restaurant in America, order the child's plate. And then only eat half of it. You'll be about right. Look for things you can't pronounce. They'll probably be more authentic than the stuff you're familiar with. Drink water instead of soda. If you're cooking at home, cut down the portion sizes. Ditch the butter and and amp up the olive oil. Leave the cow and go for the fish. Again, drink water. Whether you're eating out at a restaurant or dining in at home, remember it's not the quantity of the food on the plate that makes the difference, it's the quality. Forget about “abbondanza” and concentrate on “la qualità.” It will change your life and your outlook on Italian food.

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