Ordering for one, dining for two: portions out of control

April 27th, 2017  |  Published in slider, Uncategorized



Outside of Pasquale’s Rigoletto on Arthur Avenue. Photo: Margie Merritt.

By Margie Merritt

The lone server at San Gennaro Trattoria on Arthur Avenue rushes from the kitchen balancing heaping plates of freshly made pasta and fresh branzino covered in fresh herbs. The cooks dish up big portions of  many traditional Italian favorites to hungry guests who rarely manage to finish. From the spaghetti alla carbonara and veal cutlets to the fettuccine Alfredo and grilled branzino, everything is oversized at the Italian restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

“Ninety percent of the people that eat here have to take some of their food home with them,” says Vinny Spena, restaurant manager at Pasquale’s Rigoletto on Arthur Avenue. “They just can’t finish it all.”

A few doors down, Gennaro Martinelli, the portly owner and chef of San Gennaro, says the same is true at his place. “If you have an appetizer before, I’m positive you can’t finish your meal.”

But big portions mean bigger Americans  — and this stretch of Arthur Avenue is at the epicenter of obesity in New York City, in one of two community districts with the highest rates in the city.

The city’s Health Department reports that more than half of adult New Yorkers, and one in five children, are overweight. With the National Restaurant Association reporting over 45,000 places to eat and drink in New York, portion control plays a major part in these high obesity numbers, according to Dr. Marie St-Onge, a research associate at the  New York Obesity Research Center. A 2016 survey done by Zagat says the average person now eats out an average of four and half times a week, not including breakfast.

The Bronx has the highest obesity rates in the city, at 35 percent of adults, compared to 24 percent of adults throughout the rest of the city.

“The portion sizes you are served in restaurants are often much bigger than what you should be eating,” says Dr. St-Onge. “So if you don’t exercise portion control, and eat the whole plate, that could lead to overeating which leads to obesity.”

Dr. St-Onge explains that portion control varies from person to person — it’s whatever an individual needs to eat in order to maintain a healthy body weight.  “Exerting portion control is being able to stop when you need to stop,” she says, adding that a good rule of thumb is to draw on past experiences. “What makes you feel comfortably full,” as opposed to stuffed, is a good goal. 

“Somedays you just know that one scoop of ice cream won’t cut it,” says St-Onge, so a sensible eater enjoys more but then adjusts to compensate for the splurge.

And when portions are as big as they are on Arthur Avenue, even diners who leave food on their plates at restaurants might be consuming more than they should be.

“It’s right there in front of them and it’s setting the expectation that this is appropriate and this is what you should eat.” Dr. St-Onge looked at photographs of servings at the Arthur Avenue restaurants. “I understand why people choose to have appetizers as their main course,” she says, estimating that the majority of the dishes are twice as big as they should be.

Calamari Linguine at Pasquale's Rigoletto. Photo: Margie Merritt.

Calamari Linguine at Pasquale’s Rigoletto. Photo: Margie Merritt.

I have absolutely no idea what the correct portion should be for my food,” says Jalin Washington, a slender 21-year-old woman who normally eats out six to nine times a week. “”I just kind of wing it and hope for the best.” 

Data released by the USDA says a serving of pasta is four ounces. An average woman should have six servings of grains (pasta, rice, bread, or cereal)  a day, and an average man should have nine. At Pasquale’s Rigoletto, Spena says a standard plate of pasta is about five or six ounces — more for shorter pasta, because long pasta tends to look fuller in the bowl. “In Italian restaurants we normally give more food,” says Chef Martinelli. “We never measure the pasta.” 

A standard serving of meat and fish is two to three ounces, with the USDA saying an average woman should have five ounces a day and an average man should have six.

Chef Martinelli says a standard ribeye steak at his restaurant is 12 to 14 ounces, more than double the recommended amount, and fish servings run between 14 and 21 ounces.


Ribeye from San Gennaro Trattoria. Photo: Margie Merritt.

The meat and fish portions at Pasquale’s Rigoletto are similar. Spena says a typical steak is 16 ounces, and most fish portions are between 12 and 14 ounces.

“With meats and fish they normally clear the plate,” says Martinelli. “But pasta they take home, the portion is bigger.”

Octopus appetizer from San Gennaro Trattoria. Photo: Margie Merritt.

Octopus appetizer from San Gennaro Trattoria. Photo: Margie Merritt.

“I’m not sure what the portion should be,” says Gabby Corrica, who eats out about three to four times a week. “I definitely eat more when I’m out though.”

Do chefs eat the same portions as the customers? “We eat the same size as everyone. I normally clean my plate,” Spena says chuckling as he pats his stomach. But Martinelli says he normally eats less. “I have to work, so I can’t stuff myself.”

Neither Spena or Martinelli feels guilty about the size of the portions they serve. “I’m not their mother,” says Al Dipaolo, chef at Pasquale’s Rigoletto. He explains some people order a lot of food so they can have leftovers to take home.

Smaller portions aren’t an option.  “We would be closed,” says Spena, of what would happen if he served more reasonable amounts.

Pasquale’s Rigoletto has been on Arthur Ave for 30 years and Spena says they’ve been serving the same portions the entire time.

“The advantage is to the customer here. We keep them happy,” he says proudly, standing in front of a wall full of autographed photos of famous diners. “It’s been the same quality and the same portions for 30 years.”

According to research done by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood institute, one day’s meals, at today’s average portion sizes, deliver 1,595 more calories than the same meal served 20 years ago. Over the course of one year, the larger portions could amount to more than 500,000 extra calories.

Dr. St-Onge suggests that diners learn to re-size their meals before they dig in: “Ask the server ahead of time if they can cut half of your meal and put it in a doggy bag to take home.”


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