Vegan Italian food offers an endless assortment of possibilities. Dominated by pasta, breads, and seasonal vegetables, no cuisine is more vegan-friendly than Italian food. Whether you’re cooking at home or dining out, this guide will acquaint you with the very best vegan options that Italian cooking has to offer.
Vegan Italian Cooking
Spaghetti and tomato sauce is one of the world’s most popular meals. The low-rent version involves boiling up some spaghetti, nuking some jarred tomato sauce in the microwave, and then perhaps (if you’re not vegan) dusting your meal with some Kraft Parmesan cheese out of the shiny green can. The result might be tasty enough, but it’s no substitute for genuine Italian cooking.
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 family. Italian food is generally easy to make, but it usually requires a lot of preliminary chopping and slow simmering. As a result, authentic Italian cooking lends itself especially well to preparing big batches for lots of people.
The meals nonna cooks for her family invariably take all afternoon to prepare. Authentic Italian sauces require patient cooking at low temperatures for hours. You can’t hurry along this sort of food without compromising the results. The saying “good things take time,” has never been more apt than when describing Italian food.
The Mexican Connection
Italian and Mexican food have much in common, especially where their healthfulness is concerned. Many of these cuisines’ classic dishes are loaded with vegetables and beans, and are therefore remarkably nutritious. Even better, many of the best-known meals from both cuisines are simple to prepare.
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 recommend learning to cook Mexican food first. Mexican food usually takes less time to make than Italian food, especially if you’ve got a pressure cooker and use store-bought corn or wheat tortillas. Additionally, Mexican food puts a greater emphasis on beans than any other cuisine, and beans are an important protein source for vegans.
But don’t let my comparison to Mexican food discourage you from delving into Italian cooking. Few cuisines offer so many enticing vegan possibilities. If you’re primarily looking for dining advice for ordering food at Italian restaurants, you can skip ahead to that section. But you may also find the following material on Italian cooking of interest, as it will acquaint you with many classic dishes.
Cooking Vegan Italian Meals at Home
Italian cooking is so popular that most general-interest vegan cookbooks include at least a few classic Italian recipes. But if you love this cuisine and want to thoroughly explore it, you should 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 Italian cooking stands head and shoulders above most cuisines, in terms of being easy to veganize without compromising on authentic flavors.
Finally, I must also recommend 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, there’s also an abundance of vegan Italian recipes online. Start here:
Outfitting Your Kitchen
Even though it’s a highly-refined cuisine with centuries of tradition, Italian food requires minimal 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)
As always, if you want to cook for large groups, a food processor will save you lots of time. And if you become obsessed with making Italian food (which often happens after you’ve made a few outstanding dishes), you certainly ought to invest in a pasta machine.
If you want comprehensive advice on outfitting your kitchen, see our kitchenware guide.
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, and their vegan alternatives, is key to learning how to cook Italian dishes. So let’s dive in.
If one food exemplifies Italian cooking, it’s pasta.
Despite what you may have heard, indigenous arctic tribes 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). Boader still are lasagna noodles, which 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.
Whatever its form, most pasta is made from dried white “semolina” or “durum” wheat flour. You can also purchase whole grain pasta made from wheat or other grains. These whole grain varieties are indisputably healthier than white pasta, but they also vary profoundly in quality. Some whole grain pastas are excellent while others are nearly inedible.
No coverage of pasta is complete without distinguishing between fresh and dried varieties. The dried stuff is sold on the shelf, whereas fresh pasta is either made at home or sold refrigerated. Dried pasta is imperishable prior to cooking, whereas fresh pasta must be eaten within a week or two of production.
If you can get it, fresh is always better than dried, almost to the degree that freshly-baked pizza trounces frozen pizza. Fresh pasta carries subtle flavors that are lost during dehydration, and delivers a more satisfying texture. The problem for vegans is that while most dried pasta is free of animal products, nearly all 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, you owe it to yourself to give fresh vegan pasta a try.
Don’t Neglect Dried Pasta
That said, I’d never turn up my nose when it comes to dried pasta. It’s one of the world’s most important foods, after all. Plus it’s dirt-cheap, easy to make, and the basis countless satisfying meals. 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 which variety of pasta you choose.
When cooking pasta, the package will tell you how many minutes it must be boiled. Every sort of pasta has different cooking times, but every variety should 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.
Italian cuisine includes some of the most healthful meals on the planet. That’s largely because most dishes require plenty of fresh produce. Many of the quintessential Italian vegetables are in the nightshade family.
Of the nightshades, tomatoes are by far the most important, since it’s the foundation of most classic Italian dishes. Tomatoes are the primary ingredient of the classic marinara sauce that Italians pour onto their spaghetti. Nearly all pizza, lasagna, and manicotti likewise uses tomato sauce. 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. You’ll get incomparably better flavor when you add your own herbs, since the high heat involved in canning destroys the nuanced flavors of pre-seasoned sauces.
Several varieties of red and green peppers are essential to Italian cooking. Italians are perhaps second only to Mexicans in their love for peppers. But unlike Mexican food—which makes heavy use of jalapenos, habaneros, and even the dreaded ghost pepper—Italians favor milder varieties of pepper. The “that’s a spicy meataball” joke notwithstanding, Italian cooking mostly avoids masochistic levels of heat.
The only Italian foods that are typically spicy-hot are meatballs and sausage. There are several spicy vegan sausages on the market. And if you crave additional heat, it’s easy enough to add some cayenne pepper or some minced hot peppers to your favorite Italian recipe.
Sliced cooked mild peppers go wonderfully with marinara sauce, either atop pizza or pasta. It’s a rare Italian casserole that doesn’t contain at least one variety of peppers. Additionally, most pizzerias put a big shaker of coarsely-ground dried red pepper on every table.
Eggplant is another indispensable Italian vegetable from the nightshade family. Pan-fried eggplant is a wonderful addition to marinara sauce. It’s also a common lasagna ingredient. Eggplant’s namesake dish, eggplant Parmesan, is a classic Italian casserole that’s readily made vegan—just replace the dairy-based Parmesan with a good vegan cheese.
Raw eggplant is one of the lowest calorie foods in existence. An entire kilogram contains just 240 calories, and you’d have to be deranged to eat that much eggplant. But nobody eats raw eggplant, and the stuff soaks up olive oil like a sponge during cooking. This means that many Italian dishes featuring eggplant are surprisingly high in calories. I always notice that I run through olive oil like crazy whenever I cook a lot of eggplant.
Onions and Garlic
No cuisine relies more on onions than Italian cooking. The classic Italian preparation method for onions is to slowly sauté chopped onions in olive oil over low-medium heat. They’ll gradually turn translucent and are perfect upon developing 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 a fundamental kitchen skill that’s crucial for a variety of cuisines. Plenty of YouTube videos demonstrate the right technique—here’s a great one.
Garlic is a cousin of onions and has such a strong, pungent flavor that it’s rarely eaten raw. The classic Italian preparation method involves skinning then mincing a few cloves of garlic. After that, sautée for a couple minutes in olive oil that’s just hot enough to bubble once the garlic is added. The stuff is incredible when stirred into marinara just before serving.
Also, don’t miss out on making roasted garlic. This mellows garlic’s intensity, and imparts a rich, buttery texture. Roasted garlic is also less likely to destroy your breath than garlic prepared through other methods.
And of course, garlic is also the key ingredient in garlic bread, which just might be the world’s most underrated side dish, especially accompanied by red wine. Garlic bread isn’t traditionally vegan but it’s easily converted by swapping out the butter with either olive oil or a good vegan butter.
Wherever you go in the Mediterranean countryside, you’ll find row after row of olive trees. Many times, these olives don’t make it out of their nearby villages; they’re pressed into oil that’s sold to local residents.
Olive trees thrive in mild climates. Hotter and colder regions must import their olive oil, and more than two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Spain, Italy, and Greece. It surprisingly tricky to reliably purchase good olive oil, since fraud is rampant in the olive oil trade. Much of this fraud arises from mafia involvement in the business. Companies frequently mislabel their bottles as a superior grade. Sometimes they will even mix in cheap vegetable oils to bottles that are purportedly 100% olive oil. One investigation found fraudulent labeling in more than half the olive oil brands tested in the United States. Here are some helpful tips for finding honestly labeled olive oil.
Like a Virgin
The best olive oil is labeled “extra virgin.” That term signifies a low acidity, which in turn means that the olives were especially fresh when pressed into oil. 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.”
I can’t remember the last time I saw plain old virgin olive oil— it seems olive oil is either extra virgin or low-quality. You can reliably assume that any olive oil not carrying the word virgin on its label is an inferior product. There’s no good reason to purchase low quality olive oil. Much better to buy an inexpensive neutral-tasting vegetable oil (like safflower) than a low-quality olive oil for your general cooking needs.
Buying and Storing Unfiltered Olive Oil
The finest olive oil usually carries a couple more labels. It will be “expeller pressed,” signifying oil extraction was done without chemicals. And it’ll also be unfiltered, which means the oil will be cloudy and carry more natural olive flavor.
Olive oil scorches at high heat, making it unsuited for high temperature cooking. Unfiltered olive oil breaks down at even moderate cooking temperatures. That said, few authentic Italian dishes requires high-temperature frying, so many Italian cooks use nothing but olive oil. Filtered extra virgin olive oil is excellent for moderate-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 when 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 green or clear glass, but it appeals to consumers unaware of the drawbacks of light exposure. So buy your olive oil in either dark brown glass or in tins. Store your olive oil in a cool dark place but don’t refrigerate it, since oil solidifies when chilled and becomes impossible to pour.
Since Italian cooking heavily features meatballs and sausages, this cuisine offers 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 worth raving about either. 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 easy to make in a food processor, and every vegan Italian cookbook has at least one good Italian meatball recipe.
Spicy sausages are another favorite component in any number of Italian meals. Sausages are much harder to make than meatballs, since you must finely grind the 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.
If you’re willing to put in the time, you can make delicious vegan sausage from scratch. The vegan Italian cookbooks recommended earlier in this guide feature sausage recipes. And there’s an entire chapter devoted to sausage in the cookbook, Plant-Based Meats.
No cuisine more highly prizes artisan cheeses than does Italy’s. In this respect, if you’ve just begun 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 sought to replace the cheapest lowest-common-denominator cheeses—shredded mozzarella, blocks of American-style cheddar, and American cheese slices. A serious Italian chef wouldn’t dream of using mass-produced cheeses. About their only use in Italian cooking is for pizza and casserole dishes.
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 feature expensive, high-quality ingredients. The best of these brands 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.
Vegan Parmesan Cheese
Perfectly-cooked spaghetti topped with freshly-made marinara sauce is undeniably delicious, but without Parmesan cheese, something is still 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 get a little fancier, 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, while the ground walnuts deliver a cheesy fatty mouthfeel.
Italians eat loads of summer squash. That’s doubtless because, like olive trees, squash thrives in Mediterranean climates. 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 regions 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. Despite their varying colors, they all taste and cook up exactly like 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 more visually enticing.
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. You can only find pumpkin flowers at farmers’ markets since they wilt too quickly sell at groceries). There may be no food with a more delicate texture than deep-fried pumpkin 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, several varieties have wonderful flavors but are practically unheard-of outside of Italy.
In particular, there are borlotti beans, which after cooking resemble Mexican pinto beans that just lost a bar fight. There are big white cannellini beans, that have a wonderfully creamy texture and commonly appear 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, you can cook favas in the same manner as any other large bean.
Lentils and garbanzos—two of the world’s most popular beans—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, don’t miss our beans guide.
Bean consumption would probably increase dramatically if only beans had a more beautiful name. In Italy, they do: it’s, fagioli. So look for this word on the menus of Italian restaurants.
Herbs and Spices
Nearly every Italian dish makes prominent use of herbs. In fact, it’s fair to say that no other world cuisine is more reliant on herbs than 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. In the mother all ironies, nobody in Italy buys Italian seasoning mix! But it’s nevertheless a wonderfully convenient and flavorful spice mix for the casual cook.
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 recipe that features tomatoes. Also consider using this mix to liven up your general cooking. Italian seasonings are a fantastic addition to such diverse dishes as stir-fried vegetables, tofu scramble, and home fried tomatoes. An Italian seasoning blend is worth keeping in your kitchen even if you never cook 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.
More Italian Herbs
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 don’t neglect dried herbs, since they still pack plenty of great flavors and they don’t spoil.
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.
Italian cooking heavily emphasizes herbs, and comparatively ignores spices. The primary exception involves ground black and red peppers, which are commonly sprinkled on pizza, pasta, and salads just before eating.
Put some 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 comes from the pressings of two varieties of grapes. The juice is cultured by bacteria and then aged in wooden casks—sometimes for as many as twelve years. Many Italian marinades rely on balsamic vinegar. It’s also a fantastic marinade for tofu, even though tofu never appears in traditional Italian cooking.
Mix balsamic vinegar with olive oil as a dip for fresh bread. Finally, the easiest salad dressing you’ll ever make is olive oil combined with balsamic vinegar and dried Italian herbs.
When buying balsamic vinegar, choose a brand that’s made in 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. Before bringing them to market, producers soak them 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, always 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 wine.
The most popular Italian tapenade (a ground vegetable paste usually spread onto bread) 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 will taste incomparably better than a jarred sauce made with olives, since freshly-added olives have a firmer texture and their salt hasn’t dissolved into the sauce.
Given this article abundance of detail, I am sure that my love for Italian cooking is obvious. While some Italian dishes are time-consuming to prepare, no cuisine offers a greater diversity of vegan-friendly recipes.
That said, although Italian cuisine is a great choice for vegans who want to learn new recipes, it’s a challenging cuisine 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. While your options won’t be extensive, it’s good to know that every Italian restaurant offers a few delicious vegan meals. And that’s certainly more than you can say for several other cuisines.
There are a handful of all-vegan Italian restaurants around the world. Obviously, nothing I said about limited options applies to them. And many vegan restaurants also offer some Italian dishes. But let’s now look at how to order at non-vegetarian Italian restaurants.
Vegan Pasta & Salad Choices at Italian Restaurants
Upscale Italian restaurants will typically serve fresh pasta made with egg. Fortunately, both spaghetti and angel hair are nearly always vegan, since they’re typically dried pasta. So at any Italian restaurant, you can reliably get a vegan plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Be sure to tell the waiter that you don’t want it sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. You should also be able to get some eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini, and olives in your sauce.
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 often junk up their salad with sliced meat or eggs. But you will still need to specify that you want a vegan dressing. To keep things reliably vegan, you can ask for olive oil and balsamic vinegar (some Italian dressings may contain mayonnaise). Also, the chef will toss usually 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 several large 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 the company’s website.
Travel in Italy
Ironically, when visiting Italy, you may be happiest avoiding Italian-style restaurants, especially when it comes to fancier dining. Other cuisines, particularly Middle Eastern, usually give you much better vegan menu options. Rome has hundreds of non-Italian restaurants, and a great many vegan places as well. Outside of Rome, your restaurant selection will vary based on the size of the city, so you may have no foreign restaurant possibilities.
I consider Italy’s most exciting dining option to be its inexpensive pizzerias. Italy has two distinct types of pizza restaurants. 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.
The most obvious difference is 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 Euros’ worth).
You’ll have sensational bread options when visiting Italy. The Italians are as passionate about their breads and baked goods as the French, and every local bakery will have delicious offerings. Two standouts are focaccia and French-style baguettes.
If you’ve never eaten focaccia before, it’s basically pizza with a thicker, yeastier crust—something closer to Chicago-style pizza than New York. Even though focaccia is often topped with a small amount of cheese, many bakeries in Italy sell vegan focaccia. When I visited Genoa, the bakery down the hill offered focaccia more tasty than just about any pizza I’ve ever eaten. 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. Italy’s big cities have gelato shops on practically every corner.
Veganism is gaining popularity 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 Dolci that serve some of the finest vegan ice cream I’ve ever eaten.
Italy still lags behind the USA and the UK when it comes to widely-available vegan ice cream, but expect that gap to close in the years ahead.
Italian Cooking’s Larger Lesson
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 way we approach cooking 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 after the second World War, 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, no matter which of the world’s cuisines you gravitate toward.
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 that nearly every classic Italian dish lends itself so readily to vegan cooking.