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Top 5 Tips for Eating Healthy in Rome

Eating healthy in Rome…Did you read that page title and go, huh?

Who needs to diet on vacation? Or, maybe you thought, what? Come on, food in Rome IS healthy…you know, Mediterranean diet, olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish…

raw artichoke salad il falchettoLove this raw artichoke salad at Il Falchetto


Eating Light and Eating Healthy in Rome

So many of our hotel guests tell me they love the food in Rome, followed by “How do Italians stay so thin? The food is so heavy/rich/filling.”

And frankly, yes, most Italians I know and see around me are in pretty good shape weight-wise.

However, this is starting to slowly change, now that there is more ready-made food available in supermarkets and more fried street food.

My stock answer is that first of all, Italians don’t eat pasta or pizza every day, certainly not at every meal. And second of all, portion size in Italy is reasonable.

Still.

It is a struggle to not eat too much when surrounded by all this great food (and wine), and to keep the pounds off. I have been on Weight Watchers while living here in Rome and it’s not easy (mostly because nothing here is packaged or labelled for Weight Watchers so I have to do a lot of measuring and weighing and guesstimating.) 

So for those of you who might be watching your weight, or simply don’t want to overdo the eating while travelling to Rome (and other parts of Italy), I am sharing my tips with you.

This page is not about being on a diet per se, while in Rome.

Nor is it meant to address specific food intolerances or allergies. Consult your doctor before travelling if you have specific questions about these things.

Eating Healthy in Rome - How I manage to live in the land of pizza, pasta, gelato and wine, and not gain huge amounts of weight

Here are the basic tips I try to follow. You probably know these already. 

Immediately following, I'll tell you how to do this in Rome.

  1. Manage your portion size (below)
  2. Choose less fried stuff
  3. How to cut back on carbs in the land of carbs
  4. Have less dairy fat
  5. Try fruit for dessert

Would you like some addresses for Eating Healthy in Rome? Jump to the bottom of the page for a quick list.


Eating Healthy in Rome - downsize your portions!

One reason Italians tend not to be overweight is because portion sizes in Italy are quite manageable. For example, nobody would imagine you could take any pasta home with you, so your portion will be just enough for you to finish or have a little left over. 

There are a few places in Rome now where pasta portion sizes are starting to look American-sized. But for the most part, a plate of pasta should look more or less like this:

cacio e pepe at piccolo arancioA typical portion of pasta in Rome - tagliolini cacio e pepe at Piccolo Arancio

Eating Healthy in Rome - half portions are key

Even though portion sizes are manageable here, I always ask my dinner companion(s) to split something or even the whole meal with me. I have never been to a single restaurant in Rome where this was a problem.

If the people I am with don't feel like sharing, or want to eat something I don't want to, I just ask if I can half a half portion (mezza porzione) of pasta. It’s typically not going to be half the price of the dish itself, but that’s fine with me, I just don’t want so much food.

amatriciana mezza porzione da flavioA lovely mezza-porzione (half portion) of Amatriciana at Flavio ai Quiriti

There are a few restaurants in Rome where they will not serve me a half portion. No problem. I just get over it, and try not to eat the whole thing.

Smaller wine portions - blasphemy I know, but doable!

Well you came to Italy to eat and drink. Drink wine presumably. I love wine as much as the next guy (or gal.) But I also know from doing Weight Watchers that wine packs a lot of points (calories). One way to enjoy your vino but keep on track eating healthy in rome: cut back on the wine calories.

You know the saying, life is too short to drink bad wine? For me, the same goes for mediocre wine. At some restaurants when you sit down, you will get a little welcome glass of prosecco. This is not going to be superb prosecco, so why waste the calories? Save it for ordering the actual wine you want.

Another way to cut back on wine and still enjoy it is to order a half bottle. Many restaurants offer half-bottles, even of excellent wines (a much smaller choice than the regular wine list but still.) Far be it from me to tell you not to enjoy some wine with your dinner in Rome! But in keeping with the theme of this page about eating healthy in Rome (and in knowing that a little wine is in fact good for you), just have less of it!

half bottle pinot grigio jermannA lovely Jermann half-bottle of pinot grigio
half bottle casale del giglio shirazDelicious Casale del Giglio half-bottle of Shiraz

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Eating Healthy in Rome - what to do about pizza?

There are two ways to eat pizza in Rome: by the slice (usually a street-food thing and for lunch), or round whole pizza (usually in a pizzeria for dinner.)

So if you are getting pizza by the slice, try getting half of what you think you want to eat. Then just get more if you are still hungry. The only place this is kinda a problem is at Pizzarium, because the lines are long and it takes a while. But at almost any other pizza by the slice place, it's typical to stand and eat it there, and just keep ordering as you want more.

pizza taglio la renellaScrumptious pizza by the slice at La Renella in Trastevere - my mom and I split this and it was plenty for us!

When it comes to round pizza for dinner, a typical pizza in Rome is very thin and flat, but pretty big circumference wise. It will usually hang over the plate it’s on. And that is meant for one person. When you go out for pizza in Rome, each person gets their own pizza, and you eat what you can.

But you could try just sharing a pizza with your dinner companion.

half pizza at sfornoA friend and I split this insanely divine gooey cheesy stilton balsamic pizza at Sforno pizzeria

To be honest, I almost always want just a little more than half. The only way for me to be able to eat only half a pizza is if I have my standard fried apps beforehand, and a beer to go with. So much for eating light!

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Eating Healthy in Rome - eat less fried food

This one's pretty obvious. Avoid fried foods. In (almost) every case below, the healthier choices are just as authentic, popular, and as accessible, as the fried option.

Seafood - Fried vs. Sauteed or Grilled

Seafood is part of the mediterranean diet, and you will find it in lots of restaurants in Rome. 

Instead of...

Try this

frittura calamari e gamberiFried shrimp and calamari
saute cozze vongoleSauté of clams and mussels
paranzaFried fish platter (paranza)
grilled sea breamGrilled sea bream

A friend of mine in Rome who does Weight Watchers will often ask them to make her pesce bollito, or boiled fish. She will add a little lemon juice and raw olive oil herself.

It does not get much plainer or less fattening than that. But considering how fresh the fish here is (or should be, as long as you go to the right restaurant), it's still delicious!

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Eating Healthy in Rome - Veggies

When you sit down at a restaurant and order a side of a green vegetable like spinach, you will usually have the choice of ripassato or all'agro. The default if you don't say anything will be ripassato.

I am a big fan of ripassato. It means the cooked vegetable has then been sautéed in olive oil with garlic and hot pepper flakes. All ingredients that make the dish just come alive.

But you can also get all'agro, which I love as well. The vegetable comes out boiled and plain, with a wedge of lemon (the agro part), and olive oil and salt. The rest is up to you. This way, you will eat a less fattening dish, you have control over the amount of olive oil you add, and as a bonus, it's actually delicious this way. The whole dish tastes fresher and you can savor each separate flavor: the veg itself, the lemon and the raw olive oil. 

Instead of...

Try

cicoria ripassataRefried chicory greens
spinaci all'agroPlain spinach - dress it yourself!

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Eating healthy in Rome - how do you like your artichokes?

You may know that artichokes are a staple of Roman cuisine. You may not be aware though, that they are only in season half the year (from late November through early May.)

What does this mean in terms of how you can eat them, and, in keeping with the theme of this page, eating healthy in Rome?

In Rome, you will find artichoke served many ways: thinly sliced and raw in salad, cut into small pieces and sautéed and served with pasta, in a paste you can spread on bruschetta...but of course the main types of artichokes Rome are Alla Giudia and Alla Romana

Instead of...

Try

jewish style artichokeJewish style artichoke at Flavio
roman style artichokeRoman style artichoke at Settimio

Carciofi alla Giudia (artichokes, Jewish style), are trimmed, deep fried in oil, then spread out, and fried some more. They wind up looking like a squished chrysanthemum, and they are just beyond heavenly good. You can do this with any artichoke that you can eat whole, and this means you can do it with artichokes not from Rome, i.e. even out of season (which I don't recommend but you will indeed find them out of season like this. In this case, they come from Bretagne, France, or even Belgium.)

Carciofi alla Romana (Roman style artichokes), are trimmed, then stewed with garlic, olive oil, mentuccia (a kind of local mint), and perhaps parsley. There are many ways and variations of doing this but the bottom line is, you will not find Carciofi alla Romana out of season.

If you want to eat artichokes in Rome, and are here in season, you could choose Roman style to keep the calorie count down. They do have quite a bit of oil, too, although certainly they are less caloric than deep-fried.

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Eating Healthy in Rome - Street Food

In reality, street food has been around in Rome and other parts of Italy for a very long time, like over 100 years. This is how pizza originated in Naples in fact: people ate paper-wrapped focaccia with tomato, which they bought from open-air stands...and eventually from this pizza was born. So street food in Italy is not a new thing.

However, it has become a huge trend in the past few years, and now, almost all the street food you see involves fried stuff. Especially french fries. Also those yummy pre-pizza fried apps. So it's tempting as you are strolling around Rome and getting hungry, to stop for some quick street food and fuel up.

Or, you could opt for the other trend in Rome: juice bars. My pal Gillian has a great roundup of juice bars in Rome.

Instead of...

Try

fried street food in romeFried street food like supplì and French fries, just about everywhere in Rome now
frullato of juices pascucciA nice fresh juice shake like this Mango Papaya frullato at Pascucci

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Eating Healthy in Rome - How to Cut Back on Carbs

Italy is pretty famous for being carb-central: pasta, risotto, pizza, gnocchi, panini and more.

But there is almost always a choice of foods that will allow for fewer carbs and eating healthy in Rome.

First Course - i primi

A typical Roman meal includes an antipasto, primo, secondo and dessert. As I have said elsewhere, you do not have to have all of these in one meal. 

A primo (first course) is either a pasta, risotto (rice) or minestra (soup.) In Rome, we actually don't have as many risotto dishes as you will find in the north of Italy. But you will sometimes find risotto alla pescatora, risotto with gorgonzola cheese and radicchio and a couple of other options. Again, you can ask for a half portion.

I find most people just want to eat pasta when they are on holiday in Rome. It's delicious here, you are on vacation, I get it.

So if you do want a primo, get a half-portion or share...or, you can try a less carby-dish like minestra (soup), or even a kind of pasta-legumes soup (think pasta con fagioli, which in Italian American dialect has come to be known as pasta fasul or even pasta fazool.)

Instead of...

Try this

amatricianaPasta as first course
lentil soup cul de sacSoup or minestra as first course

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Eating Healthy in Rome - Cutting back on Bread

To be honest I don't love the bread in Italy as much as I love it in other places like France, or San Francisco. Here, it's more like a "by the way" kind of thing. Like, with dinner. Oh, here's some bread you might want. Or, to make a sandwich out of. I guess a sandwich needs two sides, so here's some bread.

bread basket at a restaurant in romeTypical bread basket at a Rome trattoria. Tempting....but don't do it!

That said, bread in Rome is starting to get a bit more interesting, and more and more restaurants are serving what seems like homemade or at least not-only-white airy bread. I'm starting to see olive- or walnut-bread. And whole grain breads. And little seeded rolls. Very tempting. 

Do. Not. Eat. The. Bread.

Before dinner I mean! So here's the thing. You will get bread on your table when you sit down, or when you order. And you are hungry, so you nibble. But don't!

Later, when you are done with your pasta or meat, and there is sauce left on the plate, THEN you can have your bread and eat it too.

One of the best parts of a Roman meal is the scarpetta: scooping up the sauce with the bread. 

la scarpettaLa scarpetta - soaking up all that yumminess in your bread. NOW it's worth it!

Now the bread is much more interesting, and I guarantee you will have less of it than if you eat it plain and before your dinner comes when your tummy is growling.

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Eating Healthy in Rome - How to Have Less Dairy

Cheese is everywhere!

I love cheese. I could probably live on cheese. I love cheese even in gelato (try the seadas at Fatamorgana.) I love cheese on pizza, cheese on pasta, as an appetizer with wine, well you get the point.

It's not easy for me to advise this or to do it myself, but one way to cut back on fat and calories in Rome is to eat things with a little less cheese.

You could get pizza without cheese. And it is delish this way. You can really taste the other toppings.

pizza with prosciutto and arugulaPizza with prosciutto and rocket (arugula). This might also come with parmesan shavings, but just ask to have it without if you want to cut back on cheese

Most Roman pastas are made with pecorino cheese. And other pastas may have ricotta, mozzarella or other cheeses.

For some dishes like carbonara, there just is no substitute.

But if you get it, try a half-portion!

But there are lots of fantastic cheese-less pastas you can easily find in Rome: fettucine with porcini mushrooms. Spaghetti with clams. Penne arrabbiata. Even the simple aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and hot sauce.)

penne all'arrabbiataDelicious penne all'arrabbiata at Sora Lucia. Look Ma, no cheese!

I'm not saying not to eat cheese, but you can easily cut back and still eat well.

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Eating Healthy in Rome - How to cut back on Milk

The norm in Italy is whole milk. You can easily find low-fat and non-fat milk in most supermarkets. But in bars/cafes and hotels, the default is whole milk. One way to go about eating healthy in Rome is to cut back on the (whole) milk.

When ordering coffee in Rome at a cafe, just ask for latte scremato, which means non-fat milk. It's not likely they will have non-fat (I've only found one bar in Rome that does), but they might have low-fat.

You can also try ordering a caffé schiumato instead of cappuccino, which is like a cappuccino with a lot less milk.

Instead of...

Try

cappuccinoMilky cappuccino
caffe schiumatoCaffè schiumato - less milk

Or ask for soy milk if you prefer this. Almost all bars have soy milk.

When booking a hotel in Rome, write to them before you come, and ask that they provide you with low-fat or soy milk at breakfast. If they have time to prepare for it, most hotels will accommodate these requests.

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Eating Healthy in Rome - try fruit for dessert

It's very common in Rome to have fruit as dessert (another reason Italians are not so overweight.)

I don't mean a pie with fruit, I mean fresh fruit. And it's often offered in restaurants, that's how typical it is. Depending on the season, you may be offered pineapple, melon, fresh strawberries or other berries, figs, and peaches.

Don't get me wrong. There are some excellent desserts to be had in Rome: tiramisu, crème caramel, crostata, chocolate cake...but if we are talking about eating healthy in Rome, then try having the fresh fruit instead.

If you've read my gelato pages, then you know what a fan of gelato I am. I would never tell you not to eat gelato in Rome!

In fact, I think you should eat it! Remember, gelato is less fattening than ice cream. And again, portion size is key: just get the smallest size available and live a little.

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Staying Slim While Travelling to Rome - One More Thing

This is not a tip about eating healthy in Rome per se. But it is one of the most important ways to keep those kilos/pounds off when you want to indulge in a bit of a carb-fest here! 

Walking!

Yeah it's not a surprise that exercise is one of the best ways to stay slim in general. In Rome, it's very easy to walk alot. You don't even realize you are doing it half the time.

Of course walking in Rome may not be for everyone for a variety of reasons.

If you can get some form of exercise while here, great. If not, skip this part!

I do it all the time, as much as I can. And you will probably do a lot of it too, because it’s the best way to really see the city. In fact, it’s impossible to get up close to certain monuments and piazzas if you are not on foot (Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona to name just two.)

I’ve heard many people, hotel guests, friends, family, tell me they were surprised at how much food they ate while on holiday in Rome, and yet, they did not gain weight…because they walked everywhere. 

Eating Healthy in Rome - some addresses

Eventually I will make a separate page about this. But as I've pointed out on this page, you can go about staying slim in Rome even when you go out for pasta and pizza. 

However, there are quite a few places in Rome that place the focus on healthy eating. Here is a short list, and map to follow:

ciao checca bio take-away in romeCiao Checca is a great option for bio, healthy take-away right in the center of Rome
  • Ginger - A bright, lively restaurant near Spanish Steps, where you can eat bio pasta, meats and cheeses, but also lots of salad and fruit concoctions. Via Borgognona, 43-44. Open daily 10am-midnight.
  • Gina - Another great salad spot right near the Spanish Steps, with mostly salads, healthy panini and cold plates. Via di S. Sebastianello, 7A. Open daily from 11am - 8pm. Lunch reservations essential.
  • Ciao Checca - a bio/health-food take-away spot not far from the Pantheon. Piazza di Firenze, 25. Open Daily from 11:30am - 10:30pm, except Tuesday open only until 4pm.
  • Aromaticus - an herb/health food shop in Monti, where you can also grab a healthy bite. Via Urbana 134. Open Tuesday - Sunday 11am - 9:30pm. Closed Monday.
  • Fa-bìo - A great choice for eating healthy in Rome near the Vatican. All bio take-away. Open Monday - Friday 10:30am - 5:30pm; Saturday 10:30am - 4pm. Closed Sunday.
  • Vero - health food and juice bar in Prati. Via Marcantonio Colonna, 30. Open Monday - Saturday 8am - 8pm. Closed Sunday.
  • SanaCafe - a trattoria in Prati, focusing on healthy, bio foods. Via Pompeo Magno, 12. Open Monday - Saturday 9am - midnight. Closed Sunday.
  • aTrestaurant (Active Natural Eating) - Right in Rome center at Piazza di Petra, steps from the Pantheon, this place bills itself as "The first Italian Fast Casual restaurant." Lots of healthy choices and counters where you can eat them. Piazza di Pietra 62. Open Monday - Saturday 8:30am - 9pm, Sunday 9:30am - 9pm.
  • Grano Frutta e Farina - another fast- yet healthy- food shop near the Spanish Steps. Via della Croce, 49/A. Open daily 8am - 10pm.
  • Dispensa - a great option for eating healthy in Rome center, just steps from the Jewish Ghetto and Campo dei Fiori. Via Paganica, 8. Open daily 9am - 10pm.
  • Obicà - This "mozzarella bar" actually serves Slow Food, and unless you load up on mozzarella, you can eat very light and healthy here. Three locations in Rome, my fave near Parliament at Piazza di Firenze, 28. Open Monday - Friday 8am - midnight, Saturday-Sunday 10:30 - midnight.

There are in fact many of these bio-healthy-juicebar spots around Rome. But this should give you a start!

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sicilian pasta with tuna and green beans at obicaI love this light but filling salad of Sicilian pasta with tuna and green beans at Obicà in Rome

11 Places for Eating Healthy in Rome - a map



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