Are you worried about travelling to Italy as a vegan, imagining that whatever dish you order will arrive coated with parmesan cheese? Or that long-lashed waiters will look at you aghast if you even hint that you don't want mozzarella on your pizza?
It seems to be a common misconception that cheese is an integral part of all Italian dishes, and it saddens me to no end to hear vegans say that they don't think they'd be able to enjoy the food in Italy. This couldn't be further from the truth! Here is just a sampling of the many scrumptious vegan dishes awaiting travellers to this most romantic of destinations.
Let's start things off with an appetizer, as you do. A zeppola is fried bread or pizza dough, either in the shape of a ball or flattened out like the one pictured here. They can come with various fillings (they can even be sweet!), but this one is served with a simple tomato sauce.
Pasta alla Norma
This typical Sicilian pasta dish is a local specialty in the city of Catania, though you can also find it served elsewhere. It comes served in a tomato sauce with basil and chunks of eggplant. Though salted ricotta cheese it usually grated over the top, it's no problem to ask for it to be left off.
You might have heard that egg is needed to make these adorable potato dumplings, but that just isn't so. While some chefs do include eggs to help hold them together, it's also perfectly possible to make them with nothing but potato and flour, and many people prefer this lighter version. Just be sure to confirm that they're senza uova (without egg) before you dig in.
Another southern dish, ciambotta is a stew loaded with all kinds of summer vegetables (think zucchini and tomatoes), with plenty of juices to be mopped up with a generous chunk of crusty bread. Recipes vary greatly, as it's the perfect dish for throwing in whatever you have on hand (in one southern Italian dialect, if you say something is a ciambotta it means it's a big, mixed-up mess), but the most traditional recipe is nothing but vegetables and is entirely vegan.
In case you were starting to think that its only southerners who have all the fun, here's a typical northern dish for you. In fact, it's so common up there that northern Italians are sometimes referred to as polentoni – big polentas. Polenta is simply cornmeal boiled into a thick, solidified porridge, which can then be left to set and subsequently baked, grilled or fried or can be eaten straight away with veggies or some other topping. While some chefs may add butter, it's most often made with nothing but water. Pictured here in a take-away cone, topped with fried vegetables.
I bet you thought pesto was always made with cheese, didn't you? The green goo that most of us think of as pesto is actually just one of many versions of this versatile sauce. Specifically, it's the kind made in Genova (with basil, pine nuts, parmesan, pecorino, etc.). In Sicily, however, you will find pesto made with all different kinds of nuts and herbs, and rarely do these contain cheese. You might find the odd one with anchovies (acciughe), but more often than not they will be vegan. The one pictured here is made with mint, basil, parsley, pine nuts and wild fennel and sprinkled with (nope, not parmesan!) breadcrumbs and pistachios.
OK, so I'm sure you're aware that you can order a pizza with no cheese to make it vegan. But here's the thing: did you know that's not weird in Italy?? Nope, it isn't. A pizza marinara, one of the most common pizzas that you'll find on the menu of nearly every pizzeria, is a pizza base with nothing but tomato sauce, garlic and oregano. Ah, the brilliant simplicity of Mediterranean cuisine. Of course, if you'd like more in the way of toppings that's fine too; just order, for example, a “pizza verdure” (vegetable pizza) or “pizza funghi” (mushroom pizza) “senza mozzarella” (without mozzarella). It's just like asking to add artichoke hearts or leave off the bell peppers. No big deal.
Another Sicilian specialty, these little fried squares are made from chickpea flour and are the perfect snack to grab in the middle of a busy day of sightseeing. And before you start thinking that Sicilians have a monopoly on delicious vegan food, northerners make a similar dish in the shape of a large, round pancake, which is called farinata in Liguria and cecina in Tuscany.
Orange and onion salad
A deceptively simple combination of Mediterranean flavours, this sweet and sour dish is best with blood oranges, but no matter what colour they are it's the perfect accompaniment to any meal. Better yet, do as the Italians do and have your salad after the meal. This is said to help with digestion and to cleanse the palate just in time for dessert.
Speaking of dessert, gelato, that most perfect frozen concoction that is in every way superior to anything called “ice cream”, is vegan. At least, much of it is. Recipes vary from one gelateria to the next, but in most places all the fruit flavours, and often the dark chocolate flavour, are naturally vegan. In addition, many gelaterie have started offering special soy (soia) versions of some of their milk-based flavours. And in Rome there's even an entirely vegan gelateria that uses olive oil to make all their gelato flavours! If you're ever in the Eternal City, that's one experience you don't want to miss.
Keep in mind, Italian cuisine varies greatly from one place to another, and each region prides itself on its own local specialties. Generally speaking, the further south you go the more vegan options you will find (in fact, even more generally speaking, this is kind of true for the world as a whole), but even in the north you will have no problem finding delicious vegan food. Buon viaggio!
Wendy Werneth is an intrepid traveller, vegan foodie and polyglot. Having become vegan after many years of travel across 7 continents and nearly 100 countries, she's now on a mission to show you how fun and fulfilling vegan travel can be. Join her on adventures around the world at The Nomadic Vegan and download her free mini ebook, “8 Steps for Fun and Easy Vegan Travel” You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.