I have visited almost thirty countries as a non-meat-eater. My diet is what I would call “lacto-ovo-vegetarian”, meaning that I eat eggs and milk products, but try to avoid anything that I consider to be a chunk of animal flesh. During my years in Italy I toyed with eating vegan and gluten-free as well, and I’m happy to share some of my culinary tips with you.
- Define vegetarian! In Paestum, a beautiful town in the south of Italy famed for its Greek temples, my hotel room came with dinner. I told the owner I was happy to go into town and eat if he didn’t have something vegetarian, but he was excited to whip something up for me. What did he create? A bacon-stuffed artichoke! If you’re off the tourist track make sure that your server and/or chef knows what kind of vegetarianism you follow.
- Don’t go carb-crazy. It’s easy to eat lots of pizza and pasta, but you’re unlikely to meet your nutritional needs this way. Incorporate them into your meal plans along with other dishes.
- Explore ethnic cuisines. Of course you’ve got to try lots of traditional Italian dishes, but consider the changing face of Italy too. A recent influx of Middle Eastern immigrants means there are lots of kebab shops, many of which are happy to make a plate of falafel atop salad for you. In big cities there are often Chinese markets where you can buy fresh tofu, or Chinese restaurants that serve tofu dishes along with vegetarian chow mein, etc.
- Eat vegetables. During my stint as a gluten-free vegan I often ate salads as my main course. It’s more common to see interesting greens like arugula and mache in salads, though watch out for things like tonno and acciughe, which are not vegetarian! Many restaurants will also have antipasti bars which offer a variety of small dishes, many of which are based on grilled vegetables, as appetizers, and it only costs a few extra euro to help yourself before your main course.
- Eat fruit. The Italian word for “fruit salad” is familiar to us Anglophones- macedonia. While you’ll usually find it on the dessert menu, don’t be afraid to order it for a light lunch.
So what were some of my very favorite dishes in Italy? I have to admit that I fell in love with buffalo mozzarella, and enjoyed many margarita pizzas with buffalo mozzarella, as well as Caprese salads with this fresh cheese served beside sliced tomatoes and topped with a couple basil leaves. Grilled vegetables made up a big part of my diet- a great lunch with a friend is a pizza and plate of grilled vegetables (verdure alla griglia), shared between two people. You’ll find some interesting pizza toppings besides just buffalo mozzarella- I once had a Genovese pizza with mild white cheese, boiled potatoes, boiled green beans and pesto (no tomatoes!). In the south the fresh almond milk is a real treat for anyone who is avoiding dairy, and in the north you’ll find many polenta-based dishes for people who are avoiding gluten. My best advice to vegetarians in Italy is to take risks and go beyond pizza and pasta with tomato sauce!
(Yes, you eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the writing under that plate of pasta is in Spanish. I didn’t get much into food photography until after my years in Italy, so I have few photos of the amazing things I ate while there. Hindsight…)