Great Italian food isn't all cheese and bread — in fact, it can be quite healthy

I bet I can get your salivary glands firing on all cylinders with the mere mention of Italian food. You’re thinking long strings of mozzarella dribbling from a slice of thick crust pizza, right? Ah, American- Italian food: a delicious refuge of big carbs and bigger calories.

Fret not: Italian flavors aren’t out of the question in a healthy diet. In fact, Bethe Bowman — general manager and co-owner at Italia Trattoria in Browne’s Addition — says homemade Italian food can be quite healthy. “The use of olive oil, tomatoes and a lot of vegetables and lean proteins makes it a healthy cuisine,” she says.

For home cooks looking to lighten up their own Italian fare, Bowman and Italia Trattoria chef Anna Vogel suggest not only going light on the cheese and olive oil, but also on garlic, which can be difficult to digest. They suggest replacing heavy cream sauces with ones constructed using broth and parmesan cheese. A hearty, veggie-rich minestrone soup can be dolled up without adding lots of fat by putting the hard rind of a wedge of parmesan into a simmering pot of broth for a couple of hours.

During her years of bringing gourmet Italian cuisine to the Inland Northwest, Vogel says one of her own favorite healthy dishes — grilled chicken breast with broccoli, fregula pasta and diavolo sauce — has also become a crowd favorite when she puts it on the menu. The dish features fregula pasta: a rolled semolina pasta with “more character than a spaghetti noodle” that is similar to Israeli couscous, and that delivers a nutty flavor. And there’s even a surprise ingredient: dried apricots (never fresh, she says), which add depth to the dish and complement the acidic flavor of the tomatoes.

Italia Trattoria’s Grilled Chicken Breast with Broccoli, Fregula Pasta and Diavolo Sauce


2 boneless chicken breasts (dish works best if you can find airline chicken breast with drumette attached)

1 whole broccoli crown stem, peeled to expose the tender stem and cut in half length-wise

1 cup fregula pasta (pearl shaped Italian pasta) or oven-toasted Israeli couscous

4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided

3 Tablespoons onion, finely chopped

2 Tablespoons seeded and finely chopped jalapeno pepper

3 Tablespoons finely diced sweet red bell peppers

1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic

2 Tablespoons dry white wine (a dry pinot grigio or sauvignon)

1/2 cup crushed tomatoes

1 Tablespoon freshly chopped basil

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

1-1/2 Tablespoons chopped parsley, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 pinches black pepper

10 dried apricots, quartered

1. Lightly blanch the broccoli, shock in ice water and drain.

2. Cook fregula in boiling water for five minutes or until it’s soft. Drain and refrigerate.

3. To make the sauce: Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a hot pan and sauté the peppers, chopped onions and garlic until the onions are translucent. Add the wine and deglaze the pan. Next add the crushed tomatoes, basil, oregano, chili flakes and 1 Tablespoon of parsley and cook on low heat, adding 2 pinches of black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Keep on low heat until ready to serve.

4. Season chicken with salt and pepper and pansear on medium heat, skin side down, until it is nearly done. Flip and cook the chicken until the flesh feels bouncy but not hard. Keep warm.

5. While chicken is finishing, brush the broccoli with a little olive oil and season. Place the cut side down in hot pan and cook till browned, repeat on other side.

6. To prepare the fregula: In remaining 1 Tablespoon of olive oil, sauté remaining 1 Tablespoon of chopped onion until translucent. Add cut apricots and remaining 1/2 Tablespoon chopped parsley; add fregula and cook until hot. Season with salt and pepper.

7. To serve: Slice chicken and place over hot fregula, place grilled broccoli on the side and pour sauce over the chicken. Serves two.

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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...