If you’re worried about there not being enough vegan options in Italy, don’t be.
Italy is among the most vegan-friendly countries in the world.
It’s incredibly easy to eat vegan in Italy. Not just because of the growing number of restaurants that cater to vegan eaters throughout the country, but because of the many delicious options that are part of traditional Italian cuisine. In fact, there’s an abundance of Italian vegan specialties.
Italian cuisine is actually many different cuisines in one since local specialties vary tremendously from one region to the next, from one province to the next. Sometimes from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Yes, pizza, pasta… But Italian cuisine is much more than that, and there are plenty of local specialties that vegans can enjoy, besides carbs.
The foundation of Italian cuisine is cucina povera––the food of the poor.
Less affluent people around the world mostly eat plants. To learn more, here’s a detailed FAO report. Italian cuisine varies enormously from region to region, so it’s impossible to generalize. But especially in the less wealthy regions in the Italian south you’ll find that in many traditional recipes animal products are used sparingly––if at all.
Since extra virgin olive oil is mostly the cooking fat of choice (save for northern Alpine regions where it’s too cold for olive trees to thrive, but cows––hence butter––are abundant; and some regions that use rendered lard for baking) vegans will rarely have to worry about butter, lard or other animal products hiding in an otherwise vegan dish. Baking cakes and pastries with olive oil is also quite common. And speaking of sweets, as opposed to other Mediterranean/Middle Eastern desserts and pastries where honey is the basic sweetener, in Italy bakers use primarily brown or granulated sugar, which makes ovo-lacto free desserts completely vegan.
Let’s talk pizza––obviously
The original pizza, invented in Naples in the 18th century, is the Marinara. This pie is topped with tomato sauce, garlic and dried oregano, and maybe a few basil leaves. No cheese, no salami, no anchovies or any other animal product. Drizzled with olive oil and baked in a wood-fired oven, pizza marinara is 100% vegan, and one of the most popular types of pizza in Italy.
As for the dough, the traditional recipe calls for just four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Authentic Italian pizza crust should be vegan, and any restaurant certified by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana must use only flour, water, salt and yeast in their pizza crusts.
Pizza al taglio
Regular pizzerias with table service serve round, individual-sized pies, a pizzeria al taglio bakes its pizzas in large, rectangular pans. Pizza alla pala works by the same principle, but in this case bakers stretch the pizza dough into oblong slabs that are baked in electric ovens. The freshly baked pizza is then brought to the front of the bakery, sliced with a knife or scissors the desired size, weighed, and handed to the customer in exchange for pennies. Portable bliss.
In a pizza al taglio or pizza alla pala joint it’s highly likely that there will be at least one cheeseless option among the many toppings on rotation, coming out of the oven all day long. Two of the most common offerings are “pizza rossa” and “pizza bianca”.
The former is basically a takeaway version of pizza marinara and comes with just tomato sauce and perhaps some dried oregano and garlic. Pizza bianca, on the other hand, is a dimpled flatbread topped with nothing but olive oil and salt.
You might come across other vegan options too, such as pizza e patate (sliced potatoes and rosemary), sweet peppers, mushrooms, onions… the list goes on.
Pasta, of course
When my stepmother went raw vegan for over a decade, long before it was trendy, she avoided pasta thinking it all contained eggs. Wrong! There are two types of pasta: dried pasta and fresh pasta. Fresh pasta all’uovo as the name suggests, contains eggs in the dough. As a sweeping generalization, dried pasta (packaged, store bought) is vegan, while much of the fresh pasta, especially in regions like Emilia-Romagna––home to tagliatelle, ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, lasagne and other local specialties––contains egg yolks. As a general rule of thumb, if the pasta is darker yellow than white, there’s a bigger chance of it containing yolks.
But there’s also fresh pasta without eggs that’s totally vegan. In less affluent southern regions families didn’t always keep hens, or couldn’t always afford buying eggs. The pasta they made simply didn’t contain any. Think Puglia, for example, typical fresh orecchiette pasta is made without eggs. In Campania––the region of which Naples is capital––fresh scialatielli and cavatelli are made with just water and flour. Same goes for Sardinian malloreddus or pan-Italian gnocchi, which can be made with just flour and boiled potatoes, sans eggs.
Restaurants in Italy will always make the pasta fresca/all’uovo distinction as part of their menu options, and have some type of egg-free pasta available.
We’re putting together a special publication for our vegan readers. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, we’re sharing the recipe for a favorite vegan recipe, spaghetti alla puttanesca.
The dish originated in Naples at the turn of the 18th century. The reason why the dish gained its name, which means “harlot-style”, is obscure. One possibility is that the name is a clear reference to the sauce’s hot and spicy flavor, vibrant sexy colors and piquant aroma. Another theory is that the dish was offered by a Neapolitan madam to prospect customers at a low price to entice them inside her brothel.
Whatever the reason for its naughty name, the ingredients for puttanesca are very easy to find, are typically Mediterranean, and totally vegan. Yields 4 servings.
400 g San Marzano tomatoes (canned or fresh), chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
1 cup Gaeta olives (if unavailable, use Kalamata or any purple olives), pitted
A pinch of salted capers, thoroughly rinsed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 red chili peppers (or more, to taste)
Flat leaf Italian parsley
500 g spaghetti
In a large saucepan, sauté the garlic and hot pepper with 5 tablespoons of olive oil. When the garlic begins to sizzle and darken, remove and stir in the tomatoes. When the sauce comes to gentle simmer, add the coarsely chopped capers (best preserved in salt, not in vinegar) and the olives.
Start boiling plenty of water for your spaghetti with a fistful of coarse sea salt.
The sauce will thicken, reduce heat to keep it at a steady simmer. Use a splash of pasta cooking water to dilute if too thick.
When the spaghetti are just shy of reaching al dente stage, drain and toss them in the saucepan with the puttanesca sauce, over high heat. Stir to coat well and combine flavors.
As a final touch, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley. No cheese please.
Traditionally, the sauce is served with spaghetti although it may also be used with other long strand dry pasta types like bucatini, linguine and vermicelli. All vegan!
Puttanesca image © duespaghetti.it
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.