August is approaching, and this time of the Italian year means only 3 things: blistering heat, traffic, and people desperately trying to get away for some vacation.
So, if you happen to be visiting this pretty country for the summer, and you’re a vegan, things might not be too easy for you. While Italian cooking is full of amazing vegetarian options, vegans might have it a little harder. So, here’s a mini-guide with tips on what to do if you’re traveling around Italy, and still want to stick to your diet.
TIPS FOR EATING VEGAN & VEGETARIAN WHILE IN ITALY
1. Make sure you understand the menu
Just a heads up: this is rarely the case in big cities, but for some Italians the concept of ‘vegetarian meal’ is still a little confusing one. I have seen chicken in vegetarian menus before. Yes, I have.
Also, most soups can easily be vegetarian and made vegan, but many restaurants will add pancetta or lard to the stir-fry, or finish them with Parmigiano. Bean soup, for example, contains pork ribs, pancetta and Parmigiano rinds, which are then removed before serving. Before ordering any soup, make sure you ask whether there are any animal products in there, and ask to omit or skip them.
2. Careful of breads and flatbreads
Many Italian recipes, especially flatbreads and regional specialties, contain lard. Ask if there’s any ‘strutto’ (lard) in the recipe. Preparations like Crescia, Piadina, Focaccia, or sweets like Ciambella and many regional cookies use lard instead of butter or oil. Before getting anything baked – even if it’s dessert, make sure you ask if it contains animal products. Many people today started replacing lard with olive oil, so that option might be available!
3. Vegan Traditional Recipes
What are some Italian traditional vegan recipes?
For pasta, there are many options! Vegetarians can try stuffed pasta with truffles and mushrooms, or pumpkin cappellacci…too many to name! For soups, see point #1. Many sandwiches can be veg, or can be custom made to fit your preferences. Not to mention pizza! Countless options.
While vegetarians definitely have a large choice spectrum, vegans might ave it a little harder. For pasta, try a classic tomato sauce, or one of the many vegan pastas that are made with delicious veggie combos. Try a pizza marinara, or just ask pizza with any veg topping but without the cheese. There are many restaurants today who make fresh pasta with no eggs, but many times freshly made pasta will not be vegan. Stick to dry pasta cuts, like penne, fusilli, shells and anything that doesn’t fall in the homemade category.
4. Check the wine
Wine is made with grapes, and there’s no doubt that’s the only thing it’s supposed to be made of. So, what makes wine not vegan or vegetarian?
Many industrial wines need to be clarified to make them look very clear. If you ever read Julia Child’s book – specifically, the chapter on Soups, you might remember how she explains a method for clarifying stock using whipped egg whites. Filtering wine through a gelatinous substance produces the same effect, therefore some wines might be filtered through fish gelatin, marrow gelatin, or other not veg-friendly substances.
Ask specifically for vegan wines, or, if you’re close to the countryside, find a small local producers. Farmers definitely won’t bother clarifying their wine.
5. Vegan Gelato?
Ok, Gelato is a tough one. If you visit a quality gelato place (do your research beforehand) the sorbets, or fruit flavors, will surely be made with no milk. The best gelato and sorbetto contain very few ingredients. In the case of sorbetto, it must be only made with water, fruit, sugar, and some carob flour as a thickener. Look for the word ‘bio’, which means ‘organic’ (more info on point #8) and you’ll be sure that ice cream made there is organic, high quality and likely to have vegan options. Organic ‘bio’ gelato places also use raw cane sugar instead of white refined sugar.
6. Certified Vegan
You can be sure something is 100% vegan when you see this symbol:
Unfortunately, the official VeganOk website seems to be only in Italian, but I’m sure you can make do with Google Translate. There you can find a list of products, restaurants and brands that are certified vegan:
7. Do not underestimate the deli counter
Every supermarket has ‘il banco’, the deli counter. There you’ll see, aside the usual row of italian cured meats and cold cuts, an array of italian vegetables preserved in olive oil, fresh cheeses and regional specialties. This is also where they sell bread, so you can ask to make your own panino or sandwich. Pick a roll of choice, and ask them to stuff it with whatever you see on the counter. If you’re vegan, just avoid ‘pane al latte’, a roll kneaded with milk, and ask for ‘pane all’olio’ instead – a roll with some olive oil in the dough. There are also baguettes, ciabatta rolls, whole wheat rolls and multigrain rolls available. Avoid focaccia, as the one you find at deli counter is very likely to contain lard.
A sandwich stuffed with preserved eggplants and tomatoes makes for a delicious sandwich. Add some scamorza or mozzarella if you’re not vegan.
Some common supermarket chains in Italy are Conad, Coop, Iper, Simply, Auchan. While you won’t find things like tofu or meat substitutes here (and if you do, please please please avoid them) you can find some decent soy yogurt and many gluten-free products. For some more serious vegan fare, you’ll have to visit health food stores (see point below).
8. Good Adresses
Here’s a list of supermarkets and places that might help vegan people while on vacation here. Anything you see that is labeled ‘bio’, which stands for ‘biologico’ and means ‘organic’, is very likely going to fit the bill. These health food stores listed below focus on organic, vegan or vegetarian foods, baked goods and groceries, and never sell animal products. Here you can also find beauty products, accessories and whatnot.
So, if you have access to a kitchen, just pay a visit to one of these supermarkets and stock up on ingredients, then make these delicious salads to take along on your trip to the beach or to the countyside!
Needless to say, they are vegan and, if you use gluten-free breadcrumbs (or a gritty flour like polenta), both of them are gluten-free too!
Veganized Rice Salad (‘Insalata di Riso’)
(serves 2 as a main)
This salad screams ‘Italian summer’ all over. Traditionally, it is made with a special mix of vegetables in olive oil made specifically for rice salads, but since it’s not likely to be found outside of Italy, use a mix of veggies preserved in olive oil, or a giardiniera.
Traditionally, this salad is enriched with mozzarella, canned tuna and ham cubes – sometimes even wieners (!!!) for an all in one 80’s recipe bomb. Everyone who tried this vegan version actually ended up liking it better than the original!
For the Salad:
2 cups cooked mixed rice: try brown, red and wild
1 cup cooked cannellini beans
15-20 cherry tomatoes
Pickled olives (see recipe on Verily Magazine!)
Other vegetables of your choice, preserved in olive oil, or Italian rice salad mix*
Half a red onion
A good bunch of fresh basil, torn
For the Dressing:
Extra virgin olive oil
white wine or apple cider vinegar
* If you can find the mix at an Italian grocery store, great! But I realize that not many people would have access to something like it. So, simply use your favorite vegetables preserved in olive oil. You can also make your own, using my recipe for preserved artichokes, and substituting the same amount of other vegetables. Try peas, pearl onions or asparagus. If you can find store-bought, try peppers, eggplants, or zucchini.
ROAST THE TOMATOES
Preheat the oven to 395 F˚/200 C˚.
(If making this and the carrot salad together, cook the two in tandem!)
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half, squeeze part of the seeds out and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Arrange on a baking dish lined with parchment paper, and bake until caramelized, about 20 minutes.
ASSEMBLE THE SALAD
Toss the cooked rice and beans with all the ingredients, the roasted tomatoes and add liberal amounts of preserved vegetables. Be generous, as their flavor contributes to dress and garnish the salad. Finish with a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Roasted Crumbed Carrot Salad
8-10 small heirloom carrots
Half a red onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsps fine breadcrumbs*
2 tbsps chopped parsley
A good sprinkling of almond slivers
Extra virgin olive oil, for roasting and drizzling
Good quality thick balsamic vinegar
Salt & pepper
* For a gluten-free version, use GF breadcrumbs or, even better, try a rough flour like rice, quinoa or cornmeal – even polenta works great!
Preheat the oven to 395 F˚/200 C˚.
Toss the carrots in the breadcrumbs and enough olive oil to lightly coat them, drizzle with salt and pepper and roast until tender, about 15-20 minutes depending on the size of the carrots. Just check them every now and then!
Once ready, arrange on a dish and toss with the parsley and almonds. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to finish.
EXOTIC EXTRA: Sprinkle some sumac and toasted sesame seeds on top for a middle eastern twist!
MAKE IT A COMPLETE MEAL: Add some cooked quinoa and/or lentils or chickpeas.
Do you have any perplexity about traveling to Italy as a vegan person, or abroad? What are your struggles and experiences?
I’d love to know your questions, and make this guide even better!
NOTE: Thanks to my awesome friend Matteo for assisting with the pictures! <3 (please, excuse the quality here. This shooting was very improvised…I know this is not my usual standard, but it was fun to be outdoorsy for a day.)
NOTE 2: If you are interested in more vegan, gluten-free salads, have a look at this ongoing series I am doing for Verily magazine, all centered around the awesomeness of summer and legumes!