The most delicious vegetarian food in Italy
When I think of Italy, my mind goes straight to food – My belly starts to grumble and my mouth starts watering. For many people, Italian food is the quintessential definition of comfort food – I count myself one of them in all honestly. The best news of all is that eating vegetarian in Italy is an absolute no-brainer. Let me guide you through the landscape of vegetarian food in Italy – from reading the menu to ordering local vegetarian specialities – I have you covered!
Let’s start by looking at the essence of Italian cuisine.
What makes vegetarian food in Italy so good?
The nation’s classics –Pizza Margherita, Risotta, Bruscetta – are made with a handful of ingredients. In fact, you will hard pressed to find any dish on the menu that requires pages and pages of ingredients. The cuisine focusses on quality of quantity. Why add additional spices, and ‘froufrou’ elements when you can focus on technique and getting the cook time down to the second. Fresh, high quality vegetables are the starting point for many of the dishes…music to the ears of any vegetarian.
Italians have an unparalleled love for anything related to food (and wine). If you have ever had the pleasure of sharing a meal with a bunch of Italians, you will be no stranger to this fact. The dinner conversations will most likely revolve around this or that new Italian restaurant or so and so who experimented with tomatoes they grew themselves on their balcony in the middle of freezing winter, because the store bought version just did not have the right flavour. You will be hard pressed to find a nation as enthralled with food as Italy. This passion has been passed down from generation to generation, and translates into one of the world’s most popular cuisines.
It is true that certain regions in Italy are traditionally more reliant on meat (Tuscany, Umbria) however it is worth nothing that even in the smallest restaurants there is a whole section on the menu which is vegetarian (Contorni- we delve into this later) thus making it easy to eat vegetarian in Italy and even better to not have the feeling you are ‘missing out’ just because you do not eat meat or fish.
The Italian Menu – Vegetarian food in Italy that is widely available
In case you mistakenly think that vegetarian food in Italy stops at Pizza Margherita and pasta, you are sorely mistaken. It is very much possible to get a real ‘taste of Italy’ on a vegetarian diet without relying on simple carbs (although they should be indulged in – often). You might not know, but seasonal vegetables form the cornerstone of an Italian diet.
On a side note, if you do happen to go to Italy as a vegetarian and decide to live of pizza and pasta for the entirety of you stay that is totally acceptable too. There is such a wealth of different types of pizza and pasta that it merits an in depth investigation, let me know what your findings are!
Running through a typical Italian menu
Let’s start with the basics, you open the menu and there are various different types of food. What on earth are all these names? What does one order when, let’s walk through the various stages of a proper Italian meal and some vegetarian alternatives you can pick
1.1. Vegetarian Antipasti
Traditionally this can be seen as the first course. Often you will find it consists of cured meats, pickled vegetables, olives, various types of bread, cheeses and vegetables in oil and vinegar.
The dishes are usually fairly small and rather heavy on the animal products, not the best part of the menu the peruse as a vegetarian in Italy
Here are a couple of vegetarian antipasti to try:
Bruschetta al pomodoro
Verdure, sott’olio: Veggies in olive oil
Caponata: Eggplant, tomatoes, olives, opinion and capers fried in olive oil
Fiori di zucca fritti: Fried zucchini flower
1.2 Vegetarian Primi
Or as I lovingly refer to it – Carbohydrate heaven!
This is the part of the menu that contains Risotto, gnocchi, soup, lasagne, pasta. There should be plenty of vegetarian alternatives in this section of the menu. Be sure to ask how large the portions are, this honestly could go either way – I have had primi that could feed an army, but have also been served primi that might just about feed a toddler.
Couple of vegetarian primi you should be sure to try:
Pasta al pomodoro e basilico: pasta with tomato sauce and basil
Pasta a la norma: pasta with aubergine, tomatoes and garlic
Risotto fiori di zucca: Risotto with zucchini flower
1.3 Vegetarian Secondi
This section of the menu is usually not very vegetarian friendly.
In this part of the menu you would expect to find fish or meat dishes. These dishes are quite literally a piece of fish or a piece of meat. The idea is that you order a contorni (side dish) to accompany your protein of choice. When it comes to vegetarian food in Italy, the secondi part of the menu is perhaps best skipped.
Vegetarian secondi worth trying:
Parmigiana di melanzane: Slices of aubergine, layered and topped with a healthy dose of sheep cheese and fresh basil. A dish typical from Sicily, but found throughout the country
1.4. Vegetarian Contorni
Now this section of the menu is what it is all about. Contorni are side-dishes and what make eating vegetarian in Italy simple! In this section you will find plenty of vegetarian alternatives (and perhaps even some vegan alternatives). Remember, these plates are side dishes so depending on how hungry you are aim to order two rather than one.
There are two main ways to cook your veggies: ‘al agro’ Hard boiled with a touch of olive oil, salt and vinegar of olive oil or ‘in padella’ fried with a bit of olive oil, garlic and a pinch of black pepper.
Vegetarian contorni you do not want to miss out on:
Verdure grigliate: Grilled fresh vegetables
Insalata caprese: Tomato, mozzarella, basil
Insalata verde: Green leafy salad
Insalata di pomodori: Tomato salad
1.5. Vegetarian Pizza in Italy
And that brings us to the topic of Pizza. Pizza is considered a main course, but does not exactely fit into the primi or secondi mould. One can eat a small starter before a pizza, and then order the pizza and that would be considered a meal. Or just order a pizza and be done with it.
There are plenty of different vegetarian option, actually a vegetarian pizza is more the norm than a pizza containing meat or seafood. The most famous vegetarian pizza is the classic Margherita, if you like mushrooms try the pizza con funghi and if lots of veggies are your thing you could order a pizza alle verdure (pizza with grilled veggies).
Vegetarian food in Italy per region
There is a wide variety of regional vegetarian dishes. To make eating vegetarian on your trip in Italy easy I have listed a few typical Italian vegetarian dishes from the various regions.
Vegetarian dishes to try in Trentino – South Tyrol
Canederli and strudel: Dumplings and apple cake
Mosa: A sort of polenta
Tortel di patate: Potato pie
Vegetarian dishes to try in Lombardia
Minestrone alla Milanese: Hearty soup with beans, vegetables and herbs
Polenta: Boiled cornmeal
Vegetarian dishes to try in Valle D’Aosta
Vegetarian dishes to try in Piedmont
Pasta with truffle
Vegetarian dishes to try in Liguria
Foccacia: Tradition Italian flatbread
Pesto: A Pasta sauce made with basil
Torta pasqualina: Spinach and egg pie
Vegetetrian dishes to try in Veneto
Cicetti: Italian small tapas, traditionally eaten during for aperitivi
Pasta e fagioli: Pasta and beans
Risi e Bisi: (Rice and Peas)
Any type of risotto
Vegetarian dishes to try in Friuli Venezia Giulia
Gnocchi di susine: Sweet gnocchi with plums
Minestra d’orzo: Hearty barley soup
Pistum: A specific type of bread
Putizza: A breakfast sponge
Vegetarian dishes to try in Emilia Romagna
Vegetarian piadina: Stuffed Italian flatbread
Filled pasta (there are many types of filled pasta, so make sure there is no meat in the filling and that, if you eat them in broth, it’s not made with meat).
Vegetarian dishes to try in Tuscany
Schiacciata: The Italian answer to a sandwich. Flat bread drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. It can be stuffed with plenty of vegetables sott’olio
Panzanella: Tuscan style tomato and bread salad
Ribollita (make sure the broth is not meat based).: Slow cooked sense soup like mix of bread, beans and vegetables
Fagiuoli (Fagioli) all’uccelletto: Side dish of beans & tomato sauce
Vegetarian dishes to try in Umbria
Crostino al tartufo nero
Strangozzi con tartufi: Umbrian style pasta with black truffle
Vegetarian dishes to try in Marche
Fava beans (Fave alla Marchigiana)
Vegetarian dishes to try in Lazio (Rome)
Penne all’ arrabbiata: Penne with spicy sauce made out of garlic, tomatoes, and dried red chili peppers
Mozzarella in carrozza: Fried mozzarella with butter
Spaghetti cacio e pepe: Pasta with grated pecorino cheese and black pepper
Vegetarian dishes to try in Abruzzo & Molise
Anything “ alla Ghiotta”: A typical sauce made with capers, olives and tomatoes.
Scrippelle “mbusse,”: This pancakes filled with grated pecorino cheese
Vegetetarian dishes to try in Campania (Naples)
Pizza Margherita (buffalo mozzarella)
It comes in three varieties: Marinara, with garlic and oregano, Margherita, with tomato and basil, and Extra Margherita, the same as regular Margherita, but that must include mozzarella. All pizzas must be kneaded by hand, the dough left to rise for at least 6 hours and most importantly cooked in a wood fire oven.
Vegetarian dishes to try in Sicily
Caponata: Eggplant, tomatoes, olives, opinion and capers fried in olive oil)
Pasta a la norma: Pasta with aubergine, tomatoes and garlic
Vegetarian dishes to try in Sardinia
Pani frattau : Crispy bread ( pane carasau) topped with tomato sauce, poached egg and grated pecorino cheese.
So there you have it, a complete guide to eating vegetarian in Italy. You now know how to read the menu, when to order your cappuccino and even which vegetarian specialities to try per region. Buon appetite!!
Looking for inspiration for a roadtrip through Italy. Be sure to check out this blogpost for more information. If you want to get a peek at the most beautiful lakes in the Dolomites, be sure to check have a look here.
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