Italy is any foodies dream destination, and for vegans it’s no different. Food is such an intrinsic part of the Italian culture and there’s no better way to get under the skin of the country by eating, cooking and sharing food the local way.
While the country may be famous for its cured hams and cheeses, Italy is surprisingly vegan-friendly. Back before the industrial revolution, many Italians were vegan or vegetarian, simply because they couldn’t afford the luxury of meat. They ‘made do’ by developing a rich food culture based on soups, casseroles and hearty dishes made with legumes. I don’t know about you, but I’ve ‘made do’ with plenty of rustic Italian dishes before and they’re some of the highlights of my life.
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These days there is a definite feeling on the ground that veganism and other sustainable food movements are gaining momentum. In fact, it’s the fastest growing vegan population in Europe; about 10% of Italians are vegan or vegetarian.
So, if you’re ready to eat your way across the country, here are some key things to know before you head out on your vegan food adventure in Italy.
How to be vegan in Italy
Every corner has a different flavour
Yes, the classic Italian dishes served on checked tablecloths back home might be piled high with animal products, but in the ‘real’ Italy ingredients like fava beans, dried peppers, eggplants and – of course – tomatoes are the heroes of many dishes.
Traditional-style vegan food varies from region to region, showcasing the best of local produce.
In Tuscany, they love beans so much the locals are known as mangiafagioli – ‘bean eaters’.
In Bologna, there’s nothing quite as comforting on a cold day as a steaming bowl of faglioli all’uccelletto stew.
In Rome, handmade gnocchi is king. Although a word of warning: some restaurants will only serve gnocchi on a Thursday, following a decades-long tradition.
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Vegan pizza is everywhere
Honestly, I think pizza should be considered its own food group. In Italy, not only is pizza everywhere, but so is cheese-less pizza with vegetable toppings like tomato, olives, mushrooms, artichokes and zucchini. Order senza formarggio (no cheese) and go crazy on the carbs.
You can have your gelato and eat it too
Watching gelato being served in Italy is like watching art being made. It’s hard not to drool as the server dips their spatula into the tub, and works the frozen delight back and forth, back and forth, in a frenzy, until the creamy consistency is just right. The good news for vegan travellers is that Italians is have a high rate of lactose intolerance, so most gelatarias will have dairy-free options. Just ask for gelato senza latte (without milk) or soia gelato (soy gelato).
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Pasta is on the menu
Pasta can be made with or without eggs, so a good phrase to remember is ‘Ci sono delle uova?’: ‘Is it made with eggs?’. If in doubt, look for secca (dry) pasta: frescha (fresh) pasta is usually made with eggs, and dry is not. Most restaurants will happily whip up un piatto di pasta con verdue, pasta with fresh vegetables, on request.
There are some hidden vegan gems
If you need a few more reasons why Italy is a vegan feast just waiting for you, have a look at these amazing places that are opening their kitchens to travellers.
Il Margutta in Rome is a restaurant that’s been doing its thing for three decades, and doing it well. The restaurant brings together art, vegan, raw and vegetarian food in a spectacular way. Everything on the menu is organic, healthy and full of the best Italian flavours. The chefs are also really flexible with orders. If you see an entree you love which happens to contain cheese or eggs, the chef will be happy to swap out ingredients to make it vegan-friendly.
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In San Gimignano, travellers on Intrepid’s Vegan Food Adventure have a chance to stay at the Agrivilla I Pini agriturismo – a dedicated vegan abode in a gorgeous setting overlooking the Tuscan hills. The owners are dedicated to sustainability and regionality, so everything is in season, home grown and delicious. Even the buildings are made from local elements: the walls are chalk and the floor is made from organic screed.
Finally, in Venice, that dazzling jewel in Italy’s crown, take the opportunity to dine in the city’s first all-vegan restaurant. La Tecia Vegana is modern, but with old-school Italian touches like white table clothes and rustic brick walls. Feast on organic, vegan dishes like ravioli con seitan e funghi poricini and vegan tiramisu.
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To make the most out of your vegan food adventure, it’s good to have a few Italian words under your belt, to avoid those awkward moments when you mime a pig, or a hen laying an egg to your waiter. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty.
- Sono vegano/vegana – I’m a vegan
- Non mangio la carne e non mangio i latticini – I don’t eat meat or milk products
- Senza latte – Without milk
- Senza carne – Without meat
- Senza formaggio – Without cheese
- Avete latte di sois – Do you have soy milk?
- Ci sono delle uova? – Are there any eggs?
- Zucchine – Zucchini
- Fungo – Mushroom
- Melanzana – Eggplant/Aubergine
- Fagioli – Beans
As the Italians say, gnocchi, rape, fave e ceci due ti saziano per dieci – which translates generally to ‘A couple of bites of plant-based foods will keep you full.’
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Italy has always excelled at food and when it comes to vegan dishes, they’ve really outdone themselves. With a mix of traditional and new they’ve taken to the movement with gusto, and our tastebuds will be eternally grateful.
Ready to explore a different side of Italian cuisine? Travel around Italy on a vegan food adventure with a small group of travellers and an expert local guide now.
All images by Cliff Bielawski.