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Visiting Italy as a Vegetarian | Italian Dishes To Order in Rome & Florence

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Traveling as a vegetarian in Italy isn’t as challenging as you might think.

Sono vegetariana,” and no one makes a face. That’s because, in Italy, skipping meat is no big deal.

Photo Credit: Eleonora Baldwin

 

The average everyday Italian diet is very vegetarian-friendly, and the reason for this is in the history books.

The Bel Paese has only seen opulence and a loftier life only after the industrial revolution. Meat was a luxury item not all layers of society could afford, especially in the more poverty-stricken, bombarded or rural areas of the Peninsula. And this is directly reflected in the traditional meatless preparations of ‘cucina povera’, classic recipes and regional specialties.

I am a carnivore, but many of my closest friends and some members of my family are vegetarians/vegans, and even if I don’t follow their lead, I deeply respect their ethical eating restrictions.

In my line of work, I’ve had the opportunity to be directly involved with this issue when leading foodie walks or teaching cookery lessons.

A few weeks ago I taught a class for a large family visiting Italy for the first time. We had a ball shopping for the fresh ingredients at the market, bringing them back to their wonderful Pantheon apartment and cooking them together in the small kitchen into a gargantuan five-course vegetarian feast.

You may also like: Visit Italy Like A Pro The First Time Around

There are also many vegetarian restaurants all over Italy, but there actually needn’t be, because dining out in Italy is not a problem for those who choose to omit animal protein from their plates.

It’s true in fact that not all Italians have to eat meat at every meal, on the contrary. Eating red meat is actually not that habitual, in my carnivore family never more than once a week.

We prefer the occasional white meats, cured pork and lots of fish and seafood. It’s easy for Italians to comprehend and accept vegetarianism, much more than in traditionally beef consuming cultures such as North America and Great Britain, for example.

The best way to go about things, when planning to eat out, is doing a little research. Learn about the local specialties, download menus from restaurant websites, find out what places are famous for.

meatless meals in italy

Cacio e Pepe. Photo Credit Rob Larsen

If you’re Rome, Tuscany, or Sicily-bound, for example, know that for each location (and many more besides these) there are strong territorial meat traditions: Rome is famed for its offal culture; Florence for its mammoth 2-pound beef steaks and grilled meat goodies; and Sicily (or any other island/coastal southern location in Italy) relies mainly on fish and seafood. But don’t worry––here in Italy, it’s not all about the carne.

Italy is the country that’s menus brim the fullest with exciting side dishes, complete meals based on vegetables and varieties of seasonal produce employed in numerous traditional preparations. 

Just think of the myriad possibilities offered by the three magic P’s: Pasta, Pizza, Polenta! The variety of cereal and grains, legumes, delightful olive oil, organic brown eggs, vegetable sauces, hearty soups, ambrosial condiments, drool-worthy dairy, and the natural fresh produce that grace our tables every day.

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The best way to order a vegetarian meal when dining out in Italy is sticking to the “Primi” section – the starchy openers – and picking one or more choices out of the commonly rich “Contorni”– the supportive side dishes. Several antipasti can also fit the bill, so a meal made up these tasty elements, paired and multiplied to satisfy even the most voracious of appetites, and closed off by a handsome dessert, mirrors the average Italian eater’s meal, whether meat-eating or not.

Primi come in many declensions: pasta, risotto, soup. These may be used in recipes that use ground beef, sizzled bacon or guanciale, shellfish or roe, sausage or other “prescribed” dressings. But on the other hand, there are typical Italian recipes conceived to include exclusively raw or cooked vegetables, cheeses, pulse, herbs and spices alone.

Side dishes are primarily vegetable-based, and rarely include meat elements because they are courses intended to accompany the protein entrée. While there is little fantasy in salads, the Italian side dish buffet overflows with abundant choice, both raw and cooked.

This could be a typical order in the meat-loving cities mentioned above.

Rome

italy veggie meals

Tomatoes stuffed with rice: Photo Credit Eleonora Baldwin

Starter: Cacio e Pepe (a dreadfully tasty pecorino cheese and black pepper condiment for tonnarelli, or any other thick noodle-like pasta.

Main: Pomodori col Riso (Rice cooked within a roasted tomato) Side: Agretti (typical Roman grass-like greens with a distinct spinach flavor and very rich in iron, served steamed with just a dribble of lemon juice and olive oil).

Dessert: Tiramisu.

If you are in Rome, you could also head over to iVeganEat (Via Angelo Emo 125/129) Which is a supermarket but also has some prepared vegan meals.

Florence

Fagioli all’Uccelletto

Photo Credit: Michela Simoncini

Starter: Zuppa di Farro (spelt soup).

Main: Fagioli all’Uccelletto (beans stewed in a rich tomato and sage sauce).

Side: Panzanella (a “salad” made with broken day-old bread, chopped fresh tomatoes, red onions, basil and dressed with olive oil and white wine vinegar).

Dessert: Biscottini di Prato e Vin Santo (dipping almond biscuits and fortified wine).

Palermo

Italian veggie pasta

Photo Credit: Joy

Starter: Pasta alla Norma (tossed with fried, diced eggplant, tomato sauce, basil, and salty ricotta shavings).

Main: Maccu (fava bean purée).

Side: Caponata (a sweet & sour Mediterranean version of ratatouille).

Dessert: Gelato.

These are just a small fraction of the many, many possibilities offered to the vegetarian epicure in Italy.

All over the Boot, homemakers and restaurateurs will welcome non-meat eaters in their homes and restaurants, proudly offering delightful traditional recipes, and making guests feel they’ve not missed out on the full on Italian eating experience.

Buon appetito!

A good way to save money on travel expenses is to use coupon websites like Mamma.com for discounts

You may also like: Traditional Italian Food Fallacies

Related Video: Ordering Food In Italian

Here’s a quick Italian lesson you will learn two useful verbs to order food and drinks: “prendere” and “volere“.

About the author

American-born and Roman-bred Eleonora Baldwin is an active writer, blogger, journalist, gourmet vacation entrepreneur and photographer living in the Eternal City. Her writing appears regularly in several online food and travel columns that focus on Italian lifestyle, culinary customs and recipes, as well as her soon-to-be released cookbook-memoir, due for publication in 2016. Her blogs illustrate dishes, restaurant reviews, and useful tools for parents travelling with kids in Rome. On Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, her most popular blog, Eleonora shared her insider knowledge about the depth of Italian cuisine. She can be spotted in and around the Eternal City guiding epicure travelers to secret food and wine locations, interviewing celebrity chefs, and capturing with her camera the essence, beauty and life that surrounds her.

This article has 14 comments

  1. Eleonora

    Thank you Margo for prompting this wonderful topic!
    I’m so looking forward to seeing you!!! Have a wonderful trip, bella.

  2. anna

    Not so true for piedmont region..being a vegetarian I have MANY problems here.. so meat eaters be aware! Anyway, beautiful post and although i appreciate piedmont’s cuisine, this makes me want to be in ROme, Sicily, Napoli!!!

  3. admin

    Hi Anna, Would love any advice! My daughters and I will actually be in Vogogna in the Piedmont next week! Where are you?

  4. Krista

    I’m not vegetarian either, but I LOVE vegetarian food and cook it often. 🙂 How lovely to know that there is such deliciousness to be found in Rome as I will be there this fall. 🙂

  5. Briana Palma

    Great tips (and photos), Eleonora! I never thought that a vegetarian might be hesitant about eating in Italy, but as you explained, it’s easy. Thanks for sharing with us!

  6. brian miller

    not a vegetarian but i am certainly open to veg dishes done well..as i imagine much of yours are…

  7. Amanda

    molto bene cara lola!! so glad to hear vegetarian is no longer a bad word in italia – you make it look downright delicioso!

  8. saretta

    Another great article Eleonora!

  9. Joan Nova

    Well stated and illustrated. Great tips for everyone!

  10. Frank

    Very true. It’s easy to be a vegetarian in Italy—not just because the culinary tradition is there but the quality of the produce is such that you don’t feel deprived in the least.

  11. amelia from z tasty life

    I loved reading this article. As a mostly-vegetable eater Italian living in the US I take a deep sigh of relief when I come back home, to Italy…because I look forward to the incredible variety of vegetables. I have been visiting Italy for the last few weeks and I have eaten meat maybe once or twice and have never missed it!!! I would have to agree that this applies mostly to the southern regions especially, though, where the cuisine is naturally poorer, and based mostly on vegetable, legumes and fish

  12. Veronica

    I’m from the UK, where being vegetarian is VERY normal and accepted generally without comment. Vegetarian options are plentiful and almost always specified as such over here (unless you go somewhere very rural). I find going abroad daunting because really I’m spoilt over here (in terms of choice, understanding and clear labelling). I had a disastrous and unexpected soup experience in San Francisco last summer.

    I tend to regard Italy as one of the better countries to visit for vegetarianism. Whilst yes, some of the cheese may contain animal rennet and the restaurants may not separate vegetarian ingredients from meat (or for example, use different cooking utensils), I can be sure that eating a green salad or the like is generally fine. Equally pizza margherita is almost universally in touristy areas. And I figure that whilst it’s one thing to ensure your own cooking meets your own exacting standards, it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect it of other people from a different cultural background.

  13. Leslie

    Grazie, Eleonora! Sono vegetariana! Because I am coming in a few months this will really help!!

  14. Justine de Jonge

    Thank you so much for this article Eleonora!

    I became vegetarian about six months ago yet one of my travel dreams is to eat my way around Italy. I must say I can now look forward to visiting Italy in the future and still live one of my culinary dream sans meat 🙂

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