No visit to Italy is complete without falling in love with the cuisine. Italian food is the quintessential definition of comfort food for many a traveler, this one included. Being a vegetarian in Italy is a true delight. This guide runs you through the landscape of vegetarian food in Italy – from reading the menu to ordering local vegetarian specialties.
Food in Italy is so much more than simply sustenance to nourish ourselves. It is passion, family, tradition, and culture all rolled into one. You will be hard-pressed to find an Italian who does not like cooking and discussing at length the best way to make various typical dishes.
It is true that certain regions in Italy are traditionally more reliant on meat (Tuscany, Umbria) however it is worth noting that even in the smallest restaurants there is a whole section on the menu that 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.
Find more food guides for Italy that delve deeper into the specific region you are visiting.
Intro to vegetarian food in Italy
The nation’s classics –Pizza Margherita, Risotto, Bruschetta – are made with a handful of ingredients. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find any dish on the menu that requires pages and pages of ingredients.
The cuisine focuses on quality of quantity. Why add additional spices and ‘froufrou’ elements when you can focus on technique and getting the cooking 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 that they grew themselves on their balcony in the middle of freezing winter because the store-bought version just did not have the right flavor.
It would be almost impossible 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.
The Italian Menu: Various vegetarian foods
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 off pizza and pasta for the entirety of your 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!
The basics of an 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.
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 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
- Marinated olives
- 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
Or as I lovingly refer to it – Carbohydrate heaven!
This is the part of the menu that contains Risotto, gnocchi, soup, lasagne, and 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
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.
Read More: Find more traditional Sicilian dishes for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Now this section of the menu is what it is all about. Contorni are side dishes that 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
Vegetarian Pizza in Italy
And that brings us to the topic of Pizza. Pizza is considered the main course but does not exactly fit into the primi or secondi mold. 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 options, 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 to Italy easy I have listed a few typical Italian vegetarian dishes from the various parts of Italy, each one typical for that specific region.
Trentino – South Tyrol
Located in the north of Italy renowned for bucolic landscapes and beautiful lakes.
The province of Trentino – South Tyrol offers an interesting mixture of Austrian-German and Italian cuisine with the best elements of both being integrated into their dishes.
The cuisine is hearty & traditionally heavy on meat (perfect for the cold winters) yet paradoxically also one of the easiest regions in Italy to be a vegetarian (at least from my personal experience). Plenty of options for salads and fresh grilled vegetables drizzled in oil.
Vegetarian specialties of the Trentino-South Tyrol area to try:
- Canederli and Appel strudel: Dumplings and apple cake
- Mosa: A sort of polenta
- Tortel di patate: Potato pie
Lombardy is one of the more affluent regions in Italy. The region holds the fashion capital of Italy (Milan) as well as a large part of the beautiful lake area in Northern Italy most notably with Lake Garda and Lake Como.
Eating vegetarian or even vegan in Milan is effortless. This cosmopolitan city was quick to accommodate its plant-based inhabitants and visitors, with new eateries popping up every few meters.
But one does not travel to Italy to survive off smoothie bowls and poké bowls (however delicious they might be). Lombardy has plenty of traditional Italian vegetarian dishes to try.
Typical vegetarian-friendly food from Lombardy:
- Minestrone alla Milanese: Hearty soup with beans, vegetables, and herbs
- Polenta: Boiled cornmeal
- Risotto Milanese: Risotto rice infused with saffron and white wine
Valle d’Aosta in northern Italy is the country’s smallest region. The mountainous region shares a border with France and Switzerland, both of which have strong influences on the regional Valle d’Aosta cuisine. Dairy plays an important role in the local diet as do nuts and deliciously fragrant fruits that come straight from the local orchards.
Traditionally the region did not grow many vegetables, instead of relying more on meat (mainly game) and hearty starches to get them through the cold winters. There are however plenty of options for vegetarians, although many of them will be cooked in butter and slathered with cheese. This region might be harder to travel to as a vegan.
Vegetarian food to try in the Valle d’Aosta region:
- Fonduta (Fondue): Made with local fontina cheese
- Polenta Concia: Polenta cooked in the oven with slices of fontina (cheese)
- Valdostan sweet tegole: A sweet biscuit made with almonds, vanilla, and hazelnuts
This region in northwestern Italy is renowned for its wine, truffles, inventive way of using hazelnuts (thanks to Napolean who made banned cacao imports in the 19th century forcing bakers to resort to other ingredients), and the birthplace of the beloved crispy Grisini (breadsticks)
Vegetarian dishes in Piedmont often contain local cheeses (Castelmagno and Robiola di Roccaverano most notably).
Traditional vegetarian food in Piedmont:
- Pasta with truffle: If you want to splurge try the white truffle from Alba instead of the more traditional (brown) truffle.
- Homemade Gnocchi: Made with local Castelmagno cheese
- Hazelnut pastries: Locally grown Hazelnuts are used in powder, cream (Gianduia) or whole in traditional pastries.
While the name Liguria might not sound familiar, Cinque Terre, Portofino, and Genoa will most likely produce a lightbulb moment.
This popular region in northern Italy is known for fresh fish, wonderful herbs (basil reigning supreme), pine nuts, porcini mushrooms, and the finest Italian olive oil. While seafood dishes are heavily represented on many menus, every restaurant will have at least one vegetarian dish on the menu: Pasta con pesto!
Vegetarian dishes in Liguria to try:
- Foccacia: Tradition Italian flatbread
- Pesto Genovese: A pasta sauce made with basil
- Torta pasqualina: Spinach and egg pie
The region of Veneto is wonderfully diverse both in landscape and cuisine. Surrounded by the
Dolomites in the North and the Adriatic Coast in the east, the geography could not be more different. The star of the region is the wonderfully romantic city of Venice.
Being a vegetarian in Veneto is surprisingly easy as vegetables are grown in abundance in the fertile soil of Treviso ensuring plenty of vegetable-rich dishes (peas, beans, artichokes, and various types of lettuces).
Traditional vegetarian-friendly food to eat 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
Read more: Find a detailed one week to 14-day itinerary for Northern Italy including Venice.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
The Friuli Venezia Guilia region is one of the youngest in Italy, having fixed its borders as late as 1954. The local cuisine has been strongly influenced by neighboring countries, most notably
Slovenia and to some extent Croatia. The Mediterranean at heart with a love for olive oil, fresh fish, and hearty carbohydrate-rich foods, the cuisine is highly unique to that of the rest of Italy.
Tip: Vegetarians will want to try the famous Cren (horseradish) or Ajvar (red pepper and aubergine sauce) with a slice of delicious locally made bread as an antipasto!
Delicious vegetarian food in Friuli Venezia Giulia to try:
- Gnocchi di susine: Sweet gnocchi with plums
- Minestra d’orzo: Hearty barley soup
- Pistum: A specific type of bread
- Putizza: A breakfast sponge
Emilia Romagna is regarded as the very best culinary region in all of Italy, the birthplace of the Italian classics Italian Lasagna and Bolognese Sauce, the unmissable Parmigiano Reggiano, and the beloved Tiramisu.
It is safe to say one does not go hungry in Emilia Romagna, not even as a vegetarian. Although truth be told, I found Emilia Romagna harder to eat vegetarian than in some of the above-mentioned regions as many of the dishes include meat and/or a lot of cheese.
Vegetarian food in Emilia Romagna not to miss:
- Vegetarian Piadina: Stuffed Italian flatbread
- Peperonata: Peppers stewed in vinegar
- Any type of filled pasta: Watch out, 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.
Beautiful Tuscany is on the bucket list of many travelers, it is not hard to see why. With quaint medieval towns, surrounded by bucolic landscapes and vineyards as far as the eye can see, the region is an absolute stunner. As to is the regional cuisine!
The region grows some of the country’s most delicious fruit and vegetables – you have not had a tomato unless you tried Tuscan tomatoes let me tell you as well as an abundance of cattle and fresh seafood. While the latter two will not be of interest to vegetarian travelers, the former most certainly ensures being a vegetarian in Tuscany is easy peasy!
Delicious vegetarian food in Tuscany to try:
- Schiacciata: The Italian answer to a sandwich. Flatbread drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. It can be stuffed with plenty of vegetable sott’olio
- Panzanella: Tuscan style tomato and bread salad
- Ribollita (make sure the broth is not meat-based): Slow-cooked soup-like mix of bread, beans, and vegetables
- Fagiuoli (Fagioli) all’uccelletto: Side dish of beans & tomato sauce
One of my favorite regions in Italy, nestled between the famous regions of Tuscany and Lazio lies the hidden gem of Umbria. The beauty of the landscape rivals that of Tuscany, while the authenticity of the region outweighs almost any of the other regions in the country.
Umbria is the capital of Slow Food in Italy, traditional recipes handed down for generations made with local (oftentimes farm-to-table) ingredients are what you will find in this part of Italy. Umbrian cuisine relies heavily on legumes (lentils, beans), meats (cured or fresh), and truffles.
Vegetarian food in Umbria:
- Crostino al tartufo nero: Crostino with black truffle
- Strangozzi con tartufi: Umbrian style pasta with black truffle
- Torta al testo: Traditional style sandwich
Marche (also known as Le Marche) is a region on the western coast of Italy, right next to Umbria. It boasts both a large coastline and an impressive mountainous region inland. One of the lesser know regions in Italy, yet with surprisingly diverse cuisine.
Le Marche is famous for delicious soups and stews, deep-fried fish, barbequed meats, and opulent pasta dishes. Ingredients such as locally grown olives (both oil and whole), grapes, grains, mushrooms, and a wide variety of vegetables ensure that being eating vegetarian food in Le Marche is effortless.
Vegetarian dishes in Marche:
- Fave alla Marchigiana: Fava beans cooked according to the traditional regional recipe
- Maccheroncini di Campofilone: A 600-year old local typical fresh egg-pasta (often with Ragu)
- Fritto misto: Typical fried vegetables (make sure to ask for the vegetarian variant)
The name Lazio might not ring any bells, but the region’s capital Rome sure will.
The region of Lazio has crafted some of Italy’s most well know pasta dishes, some of which are perfect for vegetarian travels (see below).
Some vegetarian friendly typical ingredients from Lazio are Pecorino Romano (sheeps cheese), puntarelle (chicory), artichokes and Pane Casareccio di Genzano. The capital Rome has abundant options for vegetarians and vegans and is even slowly warming up to the concept of gluten-free cooking.
Vegetarian food in Rome to munch on:
- Penne all’ arrabbiata: Penne with a 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
- Carciofi alla giudia: Deep fried artichoke
- Pizza al taglio: Roman pizza, not to be confused with Neopolitan pizza
Abruzzo & Molise
Wedged between Le Marche and Umbria in the North, Lazio in the East, and Campania and Puglia in the South the regions of Abruzzo and Molise are two hidden gems on the Eastern coast of Italy.
Vegetarian dishes to try in Abruzzo & Molise
- Anything “ alla Ghiotta”: A typical sauce made with capers, olives, and tomatoes.
- Pasta alla pecorara: Chewy ring pasta (annelini) with a rich vegetable sauce made from red bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini
- Sagne e fagioli: Beans in tomato sauce with strips of pasta
- Scrippelle “mbusse”: Thin pancakes filled with grated pecorino cheese
The region of Campania is home to the world’s best pizza. To make a traditional Neopolitan pizza, the dough is kneaded by hand and left to rise for 6 hours after which it is expertly cooked in a wood fire oven.
As much as I love pizza (no really, is there anything better than a good pizza?), there is more to be eaten in Campania than pizza. The region’s fertile lands ensure an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits in the regional cuisine. From fresh salads with local Mozarella to hearty soups being a vegetarian in Campania is a true pleasure.
Vegetarian food in the Italian region of Campania to try:
- Pizza Margherita: (buffalo mozzarella)
- Caprese Salade: Mozzarella, tomate and basil salade
- Zuppa di cardi: Artichoke thistle soup
- Spaghetti alla nerano: Spaghetti with butter and zucchini
The beautiful region of Basilicata in southern Italy was a very well guarded secret for the longest time. In recent years the boom in tourism in neighboring Puglia has bled into Basilicata, with adventurous tourists starting to explore the region, most notably the historical town of Matera.
Bread and pasta have been made in Matera with ancient Basilicatan wheat for thousands of years and form a key pillar in traditional cuisine. Aside from carbohydrates, the region is also blessed with fertile soil in which vegetables are cultivated in abundance.
Traditional recipes are rich in vegetables and strongly influenced by neighboring regions: chili from Calabria; the use of pine nuts and raisins as can be found in Sicily and the love of cured meats and cheeses found elsewhere in the country.
Vegetarian-friendly dishes to try in Basilicata:
- Calzone di verdura: Vegetable calzone
- Strazzata: The Basilicata Foccacia (double-check if no beef has been added to the dough)
- Minestra di patate e verza: A hearty cabbage and potato stew
Puglia is about as south in Italy as you can get, located in the boot or the south-western part of the country. The region has gained in popularity in recent years attracting many visitors (both Italian and non-Italian) eager to explore quaint villages, lounge on beautiful beaches, and ready to try regional cuisine and wines. I found traveling in Puglia as a vegetarian effortless thanks to the abundance of vegetables in the traditional Puglian cuisine.
Tip: the breadbasket with taralli and traditional Pane di Altamura placed on the table before every meal is extraordinarily inviting but equally filling. Avoid spoiling your appetite by filling up on both.
Traditional recipes from Puglia that are vegetarian:
- Taralli: Crispy bread dough fried in oil (perfect for apperitivo)
- Orecchiette with cime di rapa: Orecchiette pasta with turnip greens
- Panzerotti: Deep fried dough, traditionally stuffed with tomato and mozarella
The region of Calabria is very much off the beaten path, located at the tip of the Italian boot, right in front of the island of Sicily. Renown for its beautiful beaches, Tropea onions, aubergines, swordfish, and sausages. A core ingredient of many a dish in Calabria are aubergines and chilis.
Vegetarian food to try in Calabria:
- Crema Reggina: A rum-flavored ice cream
- Zuppa di aspragi: Creamy asparagus soup (double-check if the broth is not made using beef)
- Lagane e cicciari: Eggless durum wheat pasta dish with chickpeas garlic, white wine, parsley, and olive oil.
The island of Sicily in southern Italy is home to the best street food, Cucina Povera (poor man’s cuisine), wines, and of course citrus fruits. The region is very proud of its culinary traditions. The correct shape and name of the most famous Sicilian street food (Arancine) has caused much friction between Palermo and Catania it has made international headlines.
Fish is abundantly available on the island, as is just about anything fried (vegetables, meat, starches), the preferred way of cooking in Sicily. As a vegetarian I found eating in larger cities in Sicily easy, when heading into smaller villages with limited menus it became a bit tricker. Usually, the contorni (side dishes) section on the menu provided a few options to choose from.
Traditional Sicilian foods that are vegetarian:
- Caponata: Eggplant, tomatoes, olives, opinion, and capers fried in olive oil)
- Pasta alla norma: Pasta with aubergine, tomatoes, and garlic
- Cannoli: A flaky pastry filled with creamy ricotta, topped with pistachio crumble
Dive deep into Sicily: Delve into traditional Sicilian cuisine or the finger-licking Palermitan street food. Grab an overview of the most authentic villages in Sicily and plan out exactly where to stay in Sicily.
The beautiful island of Sardinia is a cultural mix-mash of Italian, Spanish, African, and Arab influences, all of which can also be found in the local cuisine. Although an island, many of the traditional dishes are in fact meat-based instead of fish-based.
Food is fresh, local and most of all healthy contributing to the blue zone status that Sardinia has garnered. Vegetarian options, although not plentiful, are available mostly as starters or side dishes. Be sure to leave room for some of those delicious Sardinian desserts (usually made with almonds or cheese.
Vegetarian food in Sardinia to try:
- Pani frattau: Crispy bread (pane carasau) topped with tomato sauce, poached egg, and grated pecorino cheese.
- Culurgiones: Home-made dumpling pasta stuffed with mint & potato cream.
- Sebadas: Deep-fried fritter made with Pecorino-cheese
Vegetarian food in Italy conclusion
Traveling to Italy as a vegetarian is very easy the abundance of fruits, vegetables, and pasta dishes will ensure you have plenty of choices when it comes to picking your meal. The contorni (side dishes) will always have a helping of vegetables to choose from if you find yourself in a pickle.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR ITALY
Street food in Palermo
Traditional Umbrian Food
Typical Sicilian dishes to try
Northern Italy road trip guide for one to two weeks travel Most beautiful lakes in the Dolomites Where to stay in the Dolomites