When you travel, you have to eat out for almost every meal (unless, of course, you opt for self-catering accommodations like city apartments or countryside villas). All of this restaurant dining can be hard to navigate if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially if you are particularly strict.
Italy is a food-centered culture and most restaurants worth their salt are happy to accommodate special requests when they can, but the concept of what “vegetarian” or “vegan” means is often a bit hazy and can lead to misunderstandings. It’s better to have a bit of knowledge about what dishes you can and can’t eat than to rely on restaurant chefs or servers to know that intuitively.
Here is a quick guide for eating vegetarian and vegan in Italy:
Thankfully for those looking to sample authentic regional food and not get stuck with pizza at every meal, there is a wide variety of dishes to choose from if you know what to order. Keep in mind that much of Italy was poor and rural until the post-war economic boom, so the traditional diet was largely meat-free. With so many of Italy’s regions that have a local cuisine that is founded on carbohydrates and vegetables, you might think that eating vegetarian or vegan in Italy would be easy, but it can be tricky.
Despite a growing trend of vegetarian and vegan dining in Italy, Italians still tend to use a lot of “insidious” meat (and dairy) in their cooking: most risotto is made with beef or chicken broth, for example, and tiny dices of pancetta or anchovy paste are added to a basic sauteé base for flavor. Even pesto, the most innocuous of pasta sauces, has Parmigiano Reggiano cheese added to it. In addition, many Italians define “meat” as carne, or as what you would buy at the butcher counter. Charcuterie, fish, minced fatback or other salted, cured meats, and lard are all passed off as “non-meat” items.
That said, since the number of Italians who identify as vegetarian or vegan has been growing steadily, restaurants are increasingly welcoming to these diners and it is becoming more common to see vegetarian/vegan options included in and identified on menus.
Italian cuisine is very local and seasonal, and most traditional Italian restaurants build their menu around classic local dishes (sometimes updated with a modern twist) and produce that is available at that time of year.
When eating vegetarian or vegan in Italy, always check out the contorni (side dishes) part of the menu. This is usually where the vegetable dishes are listed and where you can find delicious seasonal options like grilled vegetables or sautéed mushrooms. Be careful when ordering roasted potatoes, as they are often cooked in lard. Insalata, which is both the word for “lettuce” and for “salad”, can also be tricky. Ordering insalata will sometimes just get you a plate of plain lettuce, so request insalata mista for some tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, or other veggies added in.
There are a few regions where the cuisine revolves heavily around meat (Emilia Romagna and Umbria, for example) or seafood (coastal regions like Veneto, Puglia, and Calabria), which can be more difficult to navigate. Here are great options available on most menus (don’t forget to check the vegan options below, also suitable for a vegetarian diet):
Vegan dining can be trickier, as most Italians’ go-to protein when there is no meat is dairy or eggs. Even the delicious legume soups and stews popular in central and alpine regions often have diced fatback, guanciale, or pancetta to add flavor. If your entire party is vegan and happy to eat at vegan-only restaurants, this is probably the best bet (most are in the larger cities; vegan dining in the countryside is rare). If you are a mixed group and only some are eating vegan, then you may need a cheat sheet to help you navigate the menu.
Like vegetarians, you’ll generally skip the secondi portion of the menu where the main courses are listed and instead concentrate on the primi (pasta, risotto, legumes) and contorni (side dishes). Here are some common Italian dishes that you’ll find on most restaurant menus that are vegan:
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