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…
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Would you like some addresses for Eating Healthy in Rome? Jump to the bottom of the page for a quick list.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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 is part of the mediterranean diet, and you will find it in lots of restaurants in Rome.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most Roman pastas are made with pecorino cheese. And other pastas may have ricotta, mozzarella or other cheeses.
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.)
I'm not saying not to eat cheese, but you can easily cut back and still eat well.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
There are in fact many of these bio-healthy-juicebar spots around Rome. But this should give you a start!