It’s easy for people in Italy to embrace the vegetarian approach, much more than in traditionally meat-consuming cultures such as North America and the UK, for example. In Italy we rely heavily on native crops and nature’s cycles for our daily meals. Beyond the three magic P’s––pasta, pizza, polenta––there is a vast choice of traditional recipes that omit animal protein. The average everyday Italian diet is very vegetarian-friendly, and the reason for this is the nation’s cultural heritage.
Italy experienced opulence only after the industrial revolution. Until then, animal protein was a lavish indulgence not all layers of society could afford. Especially in the more poverty-stricken, rural areas of the country. Proof of this late 19th century austerity is now present in the traditional meatless preparations of la cucina povera. Equally available in classic recipes and regional specialties.
Eating red meat in Italy is actually not that habitual. The average family’s diet includes a variety of white meats, cured pork and lots of eggs, dairy and seafood. But Italy is also the country whose menus brim the fullest with exciting vegetarian side dishes. Think plant-based complete meals and varieties of seasonal produce used in regional preparations.
Here are a few representative elements of Italy’s vegetarian bounty. Click on the titles for recipes.
This could easily be Italy’s most famous vegetarian dish. Layers of fried eggplant, tomato sauce, basil, grated Parmigiano and diced mozzarella. Despite its name, this is not at all related to Parma – other than in the use of Parmigiano cheese.
Rice cooked within a roasted beefsteak tomato is one of the best ways Italians know to employ the summer crop. Italians usually make pomodori al riso at home. But they are just as easily purchased already baked at deli-like tavola calda canteens. Once the succulent tomatoes are hollowed out, the mix of pulp, flesh and seeds is mixed with raw rice. Seasoned with garlic, heaps of basil and oregano, olive oil and salt and spooned back into the tomato shells, nestled amongst potato wedges on a shallow tray and then baked in the oven until insanely flavored.
Gnocchi alla romana
You may be familiar with Italy’s potato gnocchi but equally vegetarian gnocchi alla romana are less famous. The dish has its origins in traditional peasant cuisine with the use of humble ingredients such as semolina. This delicious treat native of the Lazio region is made with semolina, milk, butter, grated Parmigiano, beaten eggs, ground nutmeg, salt and black pepper. The thick dough shaped into flat hockey puck-sized discs and assembled in a greased oven pan. Simply dusted with copious amounts of grated Parmigiano and flecks of butter before being baked au gratin in the oven.
This chunky and slow-cooked broken pasta and potato soup is a comforting peasant dish of Neapolitan origin. Two elements give us a successful outcome. One, cooking the pasta with all the other ingredients. The creamy soup retains precious starches, which would otherwise be lost should the pasta be boiled separately and then drained. And two, the smoked cheese that’s added in the final stages.
Along with fried sage leaves, vegetarian fried zucchini blossoms are mouth-watering treats of the addictive kind. The zucchini tops are dipped in a soft beer batter, deep-fried and eaten immediately. Note: in Rome where this dish is from restaurateurs may offer variations that include anchovies in the melted mozzarella filling. Make sure to tell your server that you don’t eat fish.
Artichokes first appear in Italian markets with the leaden skies of January and accompany us through May. That’s when the large globe, or Romano variety reaches its prime. They grow abundantly in the Roman countryside, it’s no surprise then that “carcciofi alla romana” are one of the most appreciated recipes in the Eternal City. Braised until fork-tender and cooked upright in a pan with garlic, olive oil, water and mint.
Carciofi alla giudia
As you walk the streets of Rome you will inevitably stumble across the Jewish quarter near the Tiber Island. One of the most popular treats made in this area is carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichokes). The vegetarian recipe dates back to the 16th century, when the Jewish community of Rome taught residents about artichokes. After a good cleaning and soaking in lemon water, artichokes are twice-fried to look like golden sunflowers.
Pasta e fagioli
Fagioli––how we call beans in Italy––are the cheapest, most rendering edible leguminous plant found in Italian kitchens. The famous pasta e fagioli soup is a peasant dish, made with leftover bits of pasta and common borlotti beans. Vegetarian, very affordable and enormously tasty.
This summer preparation is a clever use of leftover bread. Italians are experts in recycling food surplus, especially bread. Cooks revive the broken-up pieces of sourdough with the juices and pulp of chopped fresh tomatoes, sliced cucumber, finely chopped red onion and plenty of fresh basil. The condiment is hearty glugs of olive oil and white wine vinegar. The seasoning is only salt and pepper. Panzanella is a perfect meal for vegans too.
A type of twice-baked bread from the regions of Puglia, Calabria and Campania. Ring-shaped durum wheat buns baked until almost done, then sliced open and baked again to jaw-breaking hardness. In addition to the classic kind, equally popular is the whole-grain version. It’s easy to put this vegetarian dish together. Soak the friselle in water for 3 minutes then top with your favorite vegetables, cheese, eggs and seasonings.
Also known as “friar beards” earthy, iron-rich knots of meaty grass that look like seaweed. Agretti owe their slightly bitter and salty taste to the Lazio marshlands where they grow between March and June. Agretti are very rich in iron, and kids love to eat them because they look like green spaghetti. Either steamed with just a few drops of lemon juice and olive oil, or cooked in a variety of ways, including stir fried with olive oil and garlic.
Pasta alla Norma
Pasta tossed with fried eggplant, tomato sauce, basil and salty ricotta shavings is typical of the Sicilian city of Catania. The vegetarian recipe, named after the opera “Norma” by Catania-native composer Vincenzo Bellini, is quintessential Sicilian home-style fare. In the past when meat was scarce, eggplant and its meaty flavor, were often used as a substitute. When fresh ricotta goes through its natural aging process thanks to a salt rub, it becomes hard, flavorful and crumbly. A cheese suitable for eating or grating. Profusely dusted with ricotta salata and dressed with zingy eggplant and tomato sauce.
If you love ravioli and in general egg-dough stuffed pasta, northern Italy boasts a large variety of it. Roasted pumpkin, crumbled amaretto biscuits, cheese, eggs and a piquant fruit chutney called mostarda. All belong in the filling of delicious vegetarian tortelli typical of Mantua and Ferrara in northern Italy. Valid vegetarian alternatives to meat-filled tortellini are tortelloni with ricotta and spinach, and cappellacci with assorted fillings like artichoke, mushrooms or cheese. The dressing plays second fiddle: simple brown butter.
A type of homemade pasta native to Puglia, made with double ground semolina flour and water. The name refers to the shape resembling a small ear. We shared two recipes, a summer version with tomato & arugula and the classic Puglia recipe with cime di rapa (turnip tops, or broccoli rabe), both vegetarian.
The vegetarian dish originated in Naples, Italy at the turn of the 18th century. The reason why the vegetarian dish gained its name, which means “harlot-style,” is obscure. One possibility is the clear reference to the sauce’s hot and spicy flavor, vibrant sexy colors and piquant aroma. Another theory maintains a Neapolitan madam offered it to prospect customers to entice them inside her brothel. I love Italy!
Torta caprese is the sweet symbol of Capri. Perfectly round pasta pockets filled with semi-aged cheese, eggs and marjoram are the island’s signature savory dish. Ravioli Capresi are an ancient local recipe handed down from generation to generation.
Mozzarella in carrozza
This appetizer brings the concept of grilled cheese to a whole new level. This is a typical vegetarian recipe: slices of crustless sandwich bread stuffed with fresh mozzarella. These are dipped in beaten eggs, flour and breadcrumbs and then fried in a pan. The coating seals in the mozzarella, and the frying makes it melt. Despite its name, literally “mozzarella in a carriage,” it cannot stand uneaten for more than a few minutes after frying, quickly losing its signature crunch.
This vegetarian dish of southern Italy is made with dried, crushed fava beans (aka broad beans). Using puréed fava beans dates back to ancient Roman times, when legumes played a much bigger role in daily nutrition. Maccu is a soup on its own, but several dishes employ it as an ingredient. Think Maccu di San Giuseppe that includes other legumes and chestnuts and served on Italian Father’s Day, March 19. In Puglia, fava bean purée, fave e cicoria, is a combo of bitter dandelion greens and just a drizzle of olive oil. The bitter notes of the cicoria offset the creamy texture and sweetness of the pureed beans.
Caponata is a sweet and sour Sicilian dish that employs only summer vegetables. Influenced purportedly by Arabic and Spanish cookery. The dish consists of sautéed eggplant mixed with a hint of tomato sauce, celery, onions, olives, capers and pine nuts, slow-simmered in a piquant sour-sweet sauce. Caponata is an appetizer or a side dish.
Everyone knows classic Italian risotto, but how about orzotto? If riso is rice, orzo is Italian for barley. In Italy we like to diversify our grain dishes by swapping the Arborio for some hearty pearl barley. Loaded with nutrients and fiber, barley is present in wintry soups and summer salads. It’s also a great substitute for rice in risotto. Cook the barley for orzotto just like rice in risotto. For a vegan solution, swap the butter for olive oil, and skip the grated cheese ending.
What is your favorite vegetarian dish of Italy?