The classic Italian dish is spaghetti and tomato sauce, and it’s one of the world’s most popular meals. Outside of Italy, it’ll often be made by boiling up some spaghetti, nuking some jarred tomato sauce in the microwave, and then perhaps (if you’re not vegan) dusting it with some Kraft Parmesan cheese out of the shiny green can just before serving. The result might be tasty enough, but it no more deserves to be considered authentic Italian food than a Fiero can be compared to a Ferrari.
Food and family are often inextricably linked, and that’s nowhere more the case than in Italy; Italian food doesn’t get more authentic than when it’s cooked by nonna (grandma) herself, for her large extended Italian family. Italian food is generally easy to make, but it requires more cooking and preparation time than other cuisines, so it lends itself especially well to big batches for lots of people.
The meals nonna cooks for her family are invariably time-consuming to make, generally because its sauces require slow simmering at low temperatures for hours, and can’t be hurried along without compromising the results. None of this is difficult, but it’s emphatically not food you can rush onto the table in 20 minutes after a long day at work. The saying “good things take time,” has never been more apt than in describing Italian food.
Like Mexican food, most popular Italian dishes can readily be made vegan, and many popular dishes are loaded with vegetables and are therefore remarkably healthful. Also like Mexican food, most Italian food is straightforward and easy to learn how to prepare authentically.
I regard Mexican and Italian food as two of the easiest cuisines for a beginner cook to learn, but if I had to pick one I’d suggest learning to cook Mexican food first. Mexican food can generally be prepared faster than Italian food, especially if you’ve got a pressure cooker and use pre-made corn or wheat tortillas. Additionally, Mexican food puts a greater emphasis on beans than any other cuisine, and beans are an important source of protein for vegans.
But don’t let my comparison to Mexican food discourage you from learning about Italian cooking, as few cuisines can compare to the diversity of enticing vegan possibilities it offers. And even a brief exploration of Italian cuisine will enable you to gain familiarity with some of the most valuable ingredients and techniques in the world of cooking.
If you’re reading this article in hopes of getting dining advice, you can skip ahead to that section. But even if you have no intention of spending any time cooking, the following material acquaint you with many of the most delicious dining options in Italian cuisine.
Italian cooking is so popular that any general-interest vegan cookbook is bound to include at least a few classic Italian recipes. But if you love Italian food and really want to develop your expertise, it makes sense to pick up a vegan cookbook devoted to Italian cooking. There are a few excellent ones, most notably Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen has definitive takes on all the classic Italian recipes, and features gorgeous color food photography throughout. Vegano Italiano, by Rosalba Gioffré, is another impressive effort, also featuring superior production values. Together, these books show that that Italian cooking stands head and shoulders above most cuisines, in terms of being easy to veganize without compromising on authentic flavors.
Finally, I can’t refrain from recommending Nonna’s Italian Kitchen, simply on the basis that its Stuffed Crepes recipe (on p. 107) has become my mother’s go-to meal for special family gatherings. This recipe is certainly off the beaten path, but its combination of delicate crepes, creamy vegan ricotta, and tomato sauce makes for one of the most delicious casseroles I’ve ever eaten.
And of course, if you want to go cheap, there’s no shortage of excellent vegan Italian recipes online. Start here:
- Vegan Lasagna
- Vegan Eggplant Parmesan
- Vegan Baked Ziti
- Vegan Baked Mac & Cheese
- Vegan Manicotti
Outfitting Your Kitchen
Though it’s a highly-refined cuisine with centuries of tradition, Italian food requires only the bare minimum of kitchen equipment. Here are the essentials:
- Cutting board
- Chef’s knife, paring knife, and bread knife
- Spatulas and wooden spoons
- Large kettle (for boiling pasta water)
- Saucepan (for making tomato sauce)
- Skillet (for sauteing onions, eggplant, and peppers)
- Baking sheets
- Pyrex oblong pan w/cover (for lasagna)
- Casserole dishes with glass lids (for baked ziti and manicotti)
Key Italian Ingredients
Let’s now run through the most widely-used ingredients in Italian cooking. These include: nightshades, onions, garlic, olive oil, meats and cheeses, summer squash, fresh or dried herbs, balsamic vinegar, olives, and, of course, pasta. Getting familiar with each of these ingredients will take you a long way toward being able to make great Italian food, so let’s dive in.
If one food exemplifies Italian cooking, it’s pasta.
Despite what you may have heard, indigenous people of the arctic don’t really have 500 words for snow. But Italians really do have an endless number of words for pasta, since the stuff takes every imaginable form. There’s of course spaghetti, which in Italy gets a number in ascending order of thickness (the variety most Americans eat is typically a #5 spaghetti). Close cousins of spaghetti are the especially thin “angel hair” pasta (that’ll cook in just 2 minutes and absorbs a whole lot more sauce, thanks to its extra surface area), and linguine and fettuccine (extremely broad noodles reminiscent of Chinese chow fun). Go broader still and you’ve got lasagna noodles that are boiled and then baked into casseroles.
Then there’s the assortment of pasta that comes in small pieces like macaroni, cannelloni, penne, and rigatoni. Smaller still are risotto and couscous, which are tiny raisin-sized pieces of pasta. And finally, there’s pasta meant to be stuffed with rich fillings: ravioli, tortellini, and their big brother manicotti.
Before we move on to exploring other Italian foods, let’s quickly distinguish between dried pasta and fresh pasta. The dried stuff is sold on the shelf, whereas fresh pasta is either made at home or sold refrigerated. Either way, fresh pasta must be eaten within a week or two.
If you can get it, fresh is always better than dried, almost to the degree that freshly-baked pizza trounces frozen pizza. Not only does fresh pasta carry subtle flavors that are lost during dehydration, the texture is more satisfying as well. The problem for vegans is that while most dried pasta is free of animal products, nearly all commercially-made fresh pasta contains eggs. Luckily, there are a few companies that make fresh vegan linguine and ravioli—for something like five times the price of dried pasta. But if you want to truly experience what fine pasta is all about, do what it takes to get your hands on some fresh vegan pasta.
That said, I’d never turn up my nose when it comes to dried pasta, which is dirt-cheap, easy to make, and the basis for a satisfying meal. If you want to eat healthfully, pasta is best thought of as a marinara sauce and grilled vegetable delivery vehicle, so you’ll get loads of flavor regardless of whether the pasta your choose is fresh or dried.
When you buy pasta, the package will tell you how many minutes it must be boiled. Every sort of pasta has different cooking times, but what they all have in common is they ought to be cooked in a large pot of salted water that’s at a rolling boil. The thickness of the pasta will determine the cooking time, which ranges from a couple minutes to around ten minutes for a thick linguini. And fresh pasta requires only a fraction of the cooking time of dried pasta of equal thickness. Whichever pasta you choose, it’s essential to not overcook it, since mushy pasta is scarcely edible. The key phrase Italians use for cooking pasta is al dente, which means that it stands up a little to your teeth (dente) when bitten.
Nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers)
Italian cuisine includes some of the most healthful meals on the planet, and that’s largely because most dishes require plenty of fresh produce. Nightshades in particular, are quintessential Italian ingredients.
Of the nightshades, tomatoes are by far the most important, although eggplant and peppers are also indispensable Italian ingredients. Tomatoes serve as the foundation for the classic marinara sauce that Italians pour onto their spaghetti. Tomato sauce is also used for pizza, lasagna, and manicotti. Tomatoes come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Don’t shy away from buying yellow, purple, or even green tomatoes—they’ll often offer some of the richest flavors.
Nothing compares to a marinara made from scratch from red, ripe tomatoes. Just as you can’t transmute lead into gold, there’s no way to turn mediocre tomatoes into a delicious marinara. So if good tomatoes aren’t available, you’re better off using canned sauce than making your sauce fresh from inferior tomatoes. That’s because you can always count on canned sauce being made from fresh, ripe tomatoes.
When you purchase your canned tomato sauce, always buy it unseasoned. Then add some fresh or dried herbs shortly before serving. Whether fresh or dried, the flavors will be incomparably better when you add your own herbs than if you purchase a sauce containing the same herbs (all the subtle flavors of herbs are lost from the high heat that’s part of the canning process).
In Italian cooking, cooked eggplant are excellent when added to marinara sauce and served over pasta, and it’s also great in lasagna. Eggplant’s namesake dish, eggplant Parmesan, is a delicious casserole that’s easy enough to make vegan if you use a vegan cheese in place of dairy-based Parmesan.
Raw eggplant is one of the lowest calorie foods in existence. But eggplant is never eaten raw, and it can soak up olive oil like a sponge during cooking, so many Italian dishes featuring a lot of eggplant can be surprisingly high in calories. I consistently notice that I run through olive oil like crazy during weeks when I cook a lot of eggplant.
Italians are perhaps second only to Mexicans in their embrace of peppers. But unlike Mexican food—which makes heavy use of jalapenos, habaneros, and even the dreaded ghost pepper—Italians favor milder varieties of pepper and the cuisine mostly avoids masochistic levels of heat. In fact, about the only Italian foods that are typically spicy-hot are meatballs and sausage. There are a few spicy vegan sausages on the market, and it’s easy enough to add some cayenne pepper or some fresh hot peppers to your favorite vegan meatball recipe.
As with cooked eggplant, sliced cooked mild peppers go wonderfully with marinara sauce. It’s a rare Italian casserole dish that doesn’t contain at least one variety of peppers. Additionally, shakers of ground dried red pepper are commonly on tables in pizzerias around the world.
Onions and Garlic
Onions show up everywhere in Mexican and Indian food, but no cuisine is as dependent on them as Italian. The classic Italian preparation method for onions is to slowly saute chopped onions in olive oil as they turn translucent and then develop some brown caramelization. Figure it’ll take twenty minutes for your chopped onions to go from raw to perfectly cooked (the biggest lie in cooking is that you can brown onions in five minutes.) Chopping onions is one of the most fundamental kitchen skills, and there are plenty of YouTube videos that teach you to do it right—here’s a great one.
Garlic is a cousin of garlic and has such a strong, pungent flavor that it’s rarely eaten raw. Nearly all its use in Italian cooking involves skinning then mincing a few cloves of garlic, and sauteeing them for a couple minutes in olive oil that’s just hot enough to bubble once you add the garlic. The stuff is incredible when stirred into marinara just before serving.
And of course, garlic is also the key ingredient in garlic bread, which just might be the world’s most underrated side dish, especially when served with some red wine. Traditional garlic bread isn’t vegan but it’s easily converted by swapping out the butter in favor of either olive oil or a good vegan butter.
Wherever you go in the Mediterranean countryside, you’ll find row upon row of olive trees. Many times, the harvested olives don’t make it past their nearby villages; they’re pressed into oil that’s used locally.
Olive trees thrive in mild climates. People in hotter and colder regions need to import their olive oil, and more than two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Spain, Italy, and Greece. It’s trickier than it should be to obtain good olive oil, largely because fraud is rampant in the olive oil trade, thanks largely to mafia involvement in the business. Bottles are often mislabeled as a superior grade, and sometimes cheap vegetable oils are blended into bottles that are purportedly 100% olive oil. One investigation found fraudulent labeling on more than half the olive oil brands tested in the United States. Here are some helpful tips for finding honestly labeled olive oil.
The best olive oil will be labeled “extra virgin.” That term signifies a low acidity, which in turn means that the olives were especially fresh when pressed. It also means the oil is unadulterated by inferior chemically-extracted “second pressing” oil. In a word that properly respected the English language, “virginity” would be a binary thing—either it’s virgin or it’s not—but with olives “extra virgin” denotes higher quality than mere “virgin.” For that matter, I can’t remember the last time I saw plain old virgin olive oil— it seems olive oil is either extra virgin or nothing. You can fairly assume that any olive oil that doesn’t say virgin on the label is a cheap commodity oil made with the dregs of olives treated with chemical solvents. There’s no good reason to purchase inferior olive oil. Much better to buy a higher quality vegetable oil (like safflower) than a low-quality olive oil, since it’ll be better for cooking.
The very best olive oil will carry a couple more labels. It’ll be both “expeller pressed,” signifying that no chemicals were used to extract the oil. And it’ll be unfiltered, which means the oil will be cloudy and carry a lot more natural olive flavor.
Olive oil is never suited for high-temperature cooking because it will scorch. And if you buy unfiltered olive oil, the cooking temperatures must be even lower. That said, it’s a rare Italian dish that requires high-temperature frying, so many Italian cooks use nothing but olive oil. Filtered extra virgin olive oil is excellent for low-temperature cooking, while unfiltered olive oil is ideal as a dip for breads, or as an ingredient in salad dressing.
Like beer, olive oil breaks down and develops off flavors if exposed to heat or sunlight during storage. Also like beer, olive oil typically comes in both dark and clear bottles. It’s stupid to bottle olive oil or beer in clear glass, but it appeals to consumers who like to see the color and are unaware of the drawbacks of light exposure. So buy your olive oil in either the darkest glass possible, or in tins that shield it from light. Store your oil in a cool place but don’t refrigerate it, since oil solidifies in the cold and cannot be poured.
Since meatballs and sausages are beloved in Italy, Italian cooking gives you a great opportunity to explore the vegan alternatives to these foods.
Many supermarkets and natural food stores carry frozen vegan meatballs in their refrigerated section. I’ve never had a frozen vegan meatball that was less than OK, but I’ve yet to find one that made me want to stand up and applaud. I regard the frozen brands as bland and generic, which is pretty much the opposite of what an Italian meatball should be. Vegan meatballs are quite easy to make in a food processor, and every vegan Italian cookbook ought to have at least one good Italian meatball recipe.
Italian cooking also commonly features spicy sausages. Sausages are much harder to make than meatballs, since you must finely grind your ingredients and then stuff the mix into vegan sausage casings. All of this is too much work for me, but fortunately there are delicious vegan sausages produced by companies like Tofurkey, Field Roast, Quorn, and others.
The vegan chorizo sold by Trader Joe’s and other companies may technically be a Mexican style sausage, but its spiciness makes it ideal for a variety of vegan Italians dishes calling for sausage.
No cuisine more highly prizes artisan cheeses than does Italy’s. In this respect, if you’re just now exploring Italian cuisine, your timing couldn’t be better. Fantastic vegan cheeses were all but nonexistent before 2010 but now they’re everywhere.
Until recently, most vegan cheese products were trying to replace the cheapest lowest-common-denominator cheeses—shredded mozzarella, blocks of American-style cheddar, and even highly-processed individually wrapped American cheese slices. Mass-produced cheeses like these have no place in Nonna’s kitchen, apart from being used in casserole dishes like lasagna.
But the latest generation of vegan cheeses competes with the good stuff, the sorts of locally-produced artisan cheeses that Italians favor. Premium vegan cheeses don’t come cheap since they are made with high-quality ingredients, and they cannot be mass-produced, The best of these brands will deliver all the subtlety of flavors of their artisan dairy-based counterparts.
As always, in the vegan world, you only find the best stuff by trying every product on the market. So why not make a point of buying a new vegan cheese every time you’re at your local natural food store? The more brands you try, the more likely you’ll find one or more that you love.
Finally, let’s be honest. The best spaghetti topped with the freshest marinara sauce is a fantastic meal, but without Parmesan cheese, something is missing. But there’s no need for vegans to despair. Just sprinkle on a tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast and you’ll get the same tanginess. Why does this work so well? Because the cheesy taste that people love doesn’t come from the milk, but rather from the yeasts used to culture milk into cheese. And nutritional yeast has the core flavors that people know and love in their favorite cheeses.
If you want to a fancier spaghetti topping, you can grind up a mix that’s half nutritional yeast and half walnuts. That way, you’ll not just get the cheesy flavor of nutritional yeast, but the fatty mouthfeel from the ground walnuts.
Italians eat loads of summer squash, probably because, like olive trees, squash is ideally suited for planting in a Mediterranean climate. The most common summer squash is zucchini, which looks like a cucumber but with a duller skin. During peak growing season, just one plant will spit out a terrifying number of zucchinis, so in places where it grows well the stuff is almost free during the peak of the season.
There are a number of other summer squash that have either faint green or bright yellow skins. They all taste pretty much the same and can be used interchangeably with zucchini. Remember that we eat with our eyes as much as with our mouths. So whenever possible, buy both green and yellow summer squash since the combination of colors will make your meal far more visually enticing even though the flavor won’t change at all.
In contrast to zucchini and other summer squash, Italians don’t eat much in the way of hard winter squash. But they love to deep-fry pumpkin flowers, which are a brilliant orangey-yellow and are often sold at farmers’ markets (but only rarely at groceries because they wilt too quickly). There may be no food with a more delicate texture than deep fried squash flowers.
If you’re largely unfamiliar with Italian food, you’re in for a treat where beans are concerned. Not only do beans feature prominently in Italian cooking, a few of the most popular beans have wonderful flavors but are almost unheard-of outside of Italy. In particular, there are borlotti beans, that after cooking resemble Mexican pinto beans that have suffered a beating. There are big white cannellini beans, that have a creamy texture and are widely used in soups and salads. And there are fava beans, which many Italians grow in their gardens, and that are commonly eaten raw when freshly picked. Once dried, favas can be cooked like any other large bean.
Lentils and garbanzos, two beans that appear in numerous cuisines around the world, also frequently appear in Italian cooking. If you want to learn more about Italian beans, here’s a terrific introduction to the topic. And if you’re new to cooking beans, be sure to read our beans guide.
There’s no doubt that people would eat more beans if only beans had a more beautiful name. In Italy, they do: it’s, fagioli. Look for it on the menus of Italian restaurants.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs are key to Italian cooking, and are prominently featured in every dish in this cuisine. In fact, it’s fair to say that no other world cuisine is as reliant on herbs as is Italian food.
The key Italian herbs are oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, and sage. Italians don’t tend to mix these herbs together, and instead use just the one or two herbs that seem ideally suited for the dish.
Outside of Italy many people cook with an Italian seasoning mix, which is basically a shotgun approach to Italian cooking that sacrifices authenticity for convenience. It’s worth pointing out that in Italy, nobody buys Italian seasoning mix!
Any good bulk department will carry a dried Italian seasoning mix, at a cost much lower than the prepackaged versions at your supermarket. If you buy your Italian seasoning in bulk, transfer it to a jar when you get home so it’ll keep out moisture and preserve freshness.
Every well-stocked pantry can benefit from a jar of Italian seasoning. The stuff is great in just about any Italian dish that features tomatoes. Also consider using this mix to liven up your general cooking. Whether it’s stir-fried vegetables, tofu scramble, or home fried tomatoes, it’s rarely a bad idea to add some Italian seasoning. An Italian seasoning blend would be worth keeping in your kitchen even if you never cooked Italian food.
You can also make a super easy Italian dressing by mixing three parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar, then throwing in some Italian seasoning. This homemade dressing will be better, fresher, and cheaper than any Italian dressing you could buy.
Whenever you add Italian seasoning to your food, always put it in your palm of your hand first, and then rub your palms together for a few seconds to slightly grind it. This will break apart the dried leaves, causing their oils to volatilize and thereby significantly boosting flavor.
On top of buying an Italian seasoning mix, you may also want to buy some dried oregano, which is probably the most popular of all Italian spices. You can introduce a nice change of pace to your Italian cooking by occasionally making some marinara with loads of oregano.
If you want to get truly gourmet, you can grow all these herbs yourself in a windowsill herb garden, and then just use scissors to snip what you need during cooking. Fresh herbs will take your dish’s flavor to the next level, but dried herbs still pack plenty of great flavors and are cheap and super convenient.
Basil deserves a quick mention before we finish this discussion of herbs. It’s widely available fresh, and it’s terrific as one of your salad greens. Its most famous use is as the main ingredient of pesto. Just grind up some basil leaves along with some olive oil, pine nuts, nutritional yeast, salt, and loads of garlic. Pesto is fantastic both as a pasta topping and put between the layers of your favorite vegan lasagna recipe.
Since Italian cooking heavily emphasizes herbs, spices are comparatively ignored in this cuisine. The main exception here involves ground black and red peppers, which are commonly sprinkled on pizza, pasta, and salads just before eating.
Put bottles of used motor oil and balsamic vinegar side-by-side and it would be tough to tell the difference. Balsamic vinegar is fundamentally different than any other sort of vinegar, and the good stuff is as expensive as decent wine. The definitive article on balsamic vinegar puts it like this:
Its flavor and the complex fragrance are exalted over its lowly cousin, red wine vinegar, just as red wine vinegar leaps ahead of white vinegar.
But even if you’re on a budget, you can certainly afford balsamic vinegar, since, like any other vinegar, a little goes a long way.
Balsamic vinegar is made from the pressings of two varieties of grapes, which are then cultured by bacteria and aged in wooden casks, sometimes as long as twelve years. Balsamic vinegar is a key ingredient in many Italian marinades, and vegans may be especially interested in using it as a marinade ingredient for tofu. It’s also great mixed with olive oil and used as a dip for fresh bread, or as a salad dressing when combined with olive oil and an Italian herb mix.
When buying balsamic vinegar, the best brands will be labeled either as from Modena (a city of Italy) or processed using Modena-style aging techniques.
There are more than a dozen popular varieties of olives. About half the varieties are picked green and immature, and the other half are picked black and ripe. Regardless of ripeness, olives are inedible when picked, and must be soaked in brine for weeks in order to leach out the tannins.
Many people never acquire a taste for olives, but that’s probably due to a lack of repeated exposure. If you’re new to olives, any high-end natural food store or grocery is likely to have an “olive bar” with a great variety of olives, plus some related foods like dolmas, roasted garlic, and pickled peppers. Why not fill a small container with a few olives of every type they’ve got, and then see which ones you like best? I’m partial to oil-cured black olives—they’re wrinkly and have an especially strong flavor.
Some olives are pitted and some are not, so for the sake of your molars, you must pay attention to which is which. Italians like to eat olives on a platter alongside meat and cheese, and you could certainly make a similar vegan platter and maybe accompany it with a glass of red wine.
The most popular Italian tapenade (a ground vegetable paste usually spread onto breads) is made from olives and spices. But for my money, the best use of olives is to cut up four or five as a garnish for spaghetti and marinara sauce. This is incomparably better than buying a jarred sauce that is made with olives, since freshly added olives have a firmer texture and their salt hasn’t dissolved into the sauce.
Given all the details I’ve provided in this article, I hope it’s clear that I’m a huge fan of Italian cooking. While many of the dishes are certainly time-consuming to prepare, there’s no cuisine that offers a greater diversity of vegan-friendly recipes.
That said, while Italian is one of the first cuisines I’d recommend to a vegan who wants to learn new recipes, it’s one of the less vegan-friendly cuisines when it comes to eating out. You’ve really only got a few choices, but at least these choices are easy to order, healthful, and delicious. And even if the options are limited, it’s good to know that you can always get a reliably vegan meal at an Italian restaurant—which is more than you could say for many other cuisines.
At any Italian restaurant, you can order spaghetti with marinara sauce. You’ll want to be clear to the waiter that you don’t want it sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Depending on the restaurant, you should also be able to get some eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini, and olives in your sauce. Good Italian restaurants will typically only serve fresh pasta made with egg, except when it comes to spaghetti and angel hair, which is nearly always dried pasta and vegan.
Salads are a big part of any good Italian meal, so you shouldn’t have any problem accompanying your meal with a big vegan salad. Unlike some other cultures, Italians don’t typically junk up their salad with sliced meat or eggs. But you will need to be clear that you want a vegan dressing. To make things easy, just ask for olive oil and balsamic vinegar (some Italian dressings may contain mayonnaise). Also, the chef will toss some parmesan cheese into your salad unless told otherwise. Croutons may or may not be vegan, and since it’s tough to know either way I ask them to be left off.
That’s pretty much it for your options at a typical Italian restaurant, unless they serve pizza. At a good Italian restaurant or an independently-owned pizzeria, the dough will reliably be just white flour, sugar, yeast, water, and salt. But some of the big pizza chains put dairy products in their crusts. If you’re buying pizza from a chain restaurant, you can always find out its dough and sauce ingredients by checking their website.
Travel in Italy
In Rome, there’s an abundance of restaurants offering nearly every world cuisine, many of which will be far more vegan-friendly than Italian restaurant food. Smaller Italian cities will have far fewer non-Italian restaurants, and local villages will probably have none at all.
To me, the most exciting part of dining out in Italy is the inexpensive pizzerias. There are two kinds of pizza restaurants in Italy. The first is the fancier kind where you get a table and order a pizza for your group. The second kind of pizzeria is the grab-and-go type, often with no seating, that sells slices. It’s this sort of pizzeria that’s ideal for vegans, although they do operate differently from slice shops elsewhere in the world.
First of all, these Italian slice shops bake rectangular pies. And it turns out that, unlike American pizza restaurants, Italians don’t view cheese as a mandatory pizza topping. In fact, some slices won’t have tomato sauce either. One popular pizza topping in Italy is just potatoes, olive oil, and rosemary—and it’s delicious. You’ll find all sorts of other fantastic vegan toppings from eggplant to tomatoes to olives to spinach. Usually, about 40 percent of the pizzas at an Italian slice shop will be free of meat and cheese.
Italy’s slice shops charge by weight and not by the slice. So if you don’t speak Italian, you can point to the pie you want, hold up a couple fingers, and say, “vale due Euro” (two Euro’s worth).
The Italians are as passionate about their breads and baked goods as the French, and there will be plenty of terrific vegan options at any local bakery. Two standouts are focaccia and French-style baguettes.
If you’ve never had focaccia before, it’s basically pizza with a thicker, yeastier crust—something closer to Chicago pizza than New York. While they’ll often put cheese on the focaccia, much of the time it’s vegan. When I visited Genoa, my corner bakery offered better focaccia than my corner pizzeria offered pizza. Their focaccia topping was just olive oil and onions, and yet the flavors were positively gourmet. A big slice set me back only a Euro or two, and it paired perfectly with a glass of red table wine.
Ice cream was invented in Italy, and nowhere on earth is it more popular. The Italian variety of ice cream is called gelato, which has less cream than American-style ice cream and is made without eggs. Vegans are out of luck though, because gelato is still made from cow’s milk. Major cities in Italy will have a gelato shop on almost every corner.
Vegan foods are catching on in Italy, and some of these gelato shops now offer dairy-free varieties. And Rome has a couple standout vegan ice cream parlors called Olive Dolce that serve some of the finest vegan ice cream I’ve ever eaten.
No doubt that Italy still lags behind the USA and the UK when it comes to the availability of vegan ice cream, but expect that gap to close in the years ahead.
Italian food has so much more to teach us than simply how to make a satisfying ravioli or a delicious tapenade. Our ability to cultivate a positive relationship with food is supremely important, since the approach we take to eating ripples out to influence every part of our lives. How we eat and what we eat impacts our health, our family connections, our stress levels, and our happiness.
And in all these ways, where food is concerned, Italians have the right attitude. As highly processed convenience foods spread to all corners of the world in the second half of the Twentieth Century, Italians largely decided they weren’t interested and they continued to eat in traditional ways.
Italians prioritize fresh locally-grown vegetables, slow cooking, and relaxed meals with family. You can use this attitude to inform you own cooking, regardless of whether you’re cooking Italian, Mexican or Japanese food.
The Italian approach to cooking offers benefits that extend far beyond nutrition. They’ve got a marvelous saying that embodies their relationship with food, “a tavola non si invecchia” (One does not age at the table). With that in mind, it’s incredibly fortunate to everyone wishing to avoid animal products that nearly every classic Italian dish lends itself so readily to vegan cooking.