A Vegetarian’s Eating Guide to Italy: An Introduction

One of the biggest challenges of being a vegetarian, i.e. not consuming any animal meat or eggs, is surviving in a country which is different from your own. In India, vegetarianism is linked to culture, religion and Ayurveda, hence it is deeply rooted as a way of life. It is very easy to find ‘pure veg’ or ‘jain’ food serving restaurants here. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in several other countries. I studied abroad in the UK for a year (I was pursuing my Masters then), and that was my first experience of trying to live a veggie lifestyle outside of India. During this period I started cooking for myself, and started hunting for veggie places in the town I lived. Thankfully, the UK is a pretty easy country when it comes to cuisine, and has lots of vegetarian options – so that went well for me. (Also, they love Indian cuisine too, so bonus!) 😀

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This brings me to my most recent food adventure. We recently visited Italy on a vacation, and we wanted to enjoy good vegetarian food. Italy is a beautiful country with a rich heritage, and their cuisine is one of my favourites 🙂 Who doesn’t love pizzas, pasta, risotto, fresh salads, foccacia – and most of all, gelato?? *drool* They have different specialities from each region, and different wines to pair with each of those specialty dishes. Italian cuisine is really fresh, using the latest seasonal produce, with minimal spice to flavor the dish – usually it is just seasoned with salt, pepper and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The other spices they commonly use are basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.

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Farmer’s market, Venice

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Meat is one of the mainstays of Italian cuisine, so it was pretty challenging to eat delicious vegetarian in that country,  on a schedule, without going hungry, and without breaking the bank! 😀 So I researched online quite a bit before our trip, and that really helped with making good restaurant and food choices during our holiday. It also helped us manage our budget as eating out in Italy can be quite expensive when you have certain dietary restrictions. We visited Florence, Venice and Rome in particular – so I will catalog what we ate, along with vegetarian restaurant recommendations in each of those places in the coming posts.  Keep reading! 🙂

  • First things first – download the ‘Happy Cow’ App on your phone! (available both on iOS and Android). Wherever you are, it lets you locate vegan as well as vegetarian restaurants near you. I cannot emphasise enough how handy this is in a foreign country (they apparently serve over 180 countries now). This is immensely helpful when you are busy sightseeing and do not want to waste too much time looking for a place to eat. It is equally helpful when you’re looking for a nice place to eat, in order to spend some quality time 🙂 It is really easy and straightforward to use, and is available free of cost. It gives you several filter options (by price, by distance, by pin code etc.) as well.

Disclaimer: This is not a paid advertisement. Happy Cow doesn’t even know I exist. 

  • Language: Neither of us knew Italian, except for a few stray words/phrases. Before our trip, I tried to look up some basic Italian phrases that indicated ‘without meat’, ‘without eggs’, ‘without fish’ (‘senza carne’, ‘senza uova’ and ‘senza pesce’), so that I could use them everywhere at cafes and restaurants to order correctly.
  • Ordering from the Menu: Ask for an English menu. Most restaurants have an English version for tourists. If not, ask and the waiter will explain the menu to you in English. Most Italian menus are split into the following categories – you are expected to order one dish from each course (typically, although not necessarily):
    • antipasti (appetizers);
    • primi piatti (first courses, mostly pasta);
    • secondi piatti (main courses – pizza, pasta, risotto and other assorted);
    • contorni (side items/vegetables);
    • dolci (dessert).
  • Pane (bread): Although this is not strictly part of the menu, it always arrives before your food. In Italy, only some restaurants serve warm bread – otherwise you mostly get cold/room temp bread, which I don’t really like much. Bread is usually crusty on the outside and soft inside. This bread is usually charged on your bill – anywhere between 1 and 4 euros. Also, I suggest you don’t fill up on this bread and instead wait for your main course, because the portion sizes tend to be pretty big.
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Bread basket

  • ‘Combo meals / Piatto Unico (single plate)’: In most restaurants, there are ‘set meals’ available at affordable prices, which is usually a combination of a salad, a first (and maybe second) course, all served on a single plate, paired with some drink of choice. Some restaurants also offer dessert in the combo meal. This tends to be good value for money, and the portion sizes are great. So if you want a filling lunch, I suggest going for the combo meal, for saving money and staying within budget, and also filling up your tummy 🙂
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Piatto Unico – set meal on a single plate

  • Some quick veggie options available in most cafes/bistors/restaurants:
    • ‘Margherita’ – The basic ‘basil, tomato and mozzarella’ pizza,
    • ‘Pizza Verdure’ – eggplant, zucchini, tomato, mozzarella and rocket leaves
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Pizza Verdure

  • ‘Cacio e pepe’ – Literally, just cheese and pepper. This is spaghetti tossed in EVOO, fresh cracked black pepper, salt and lots of cheese (the place we went to offered a vegetarian parmesan, so thats what we took).
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Cacio e Pepe

  • Spaghetti Pomodoro / Spaghetti Pomodoro e Basilico’ – Spaghetti or any type of pasta tossed with a basic tomato and basil sauce.
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Spaghetti Pomodoro

  • Spaghetti Aglio Olio’spaghetti tossed in olive oil, garlic and black pepper
  • Sandwichesbasil, tomato, mozzarella / roasted veg (eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomato). Restaurants offer ‘tavola calda’ or ‘hot table’ where they let you customise your sandwiches as you like, pricing based on ingredients and quantity.
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Roasted Veggie & Fresh Mozzarella Sandwich (Hot)

  • Insalata Caprese – fresh tomato, mozzarella, basil – seasoned with salt, black pepper and balsamic vinegar
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Caprese Salad

Of course, this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means; just a compilation of easily available vegetarian dishes wherever you go in Rome.

  • AVOID eating at restaurants that are close to tourist hotspots. They usually have photos of the dish plastered next to the name, and also people standing outside the restaurants calling out to passersby to come in and try their food. These places have terrible food, are overpriced, and crowded – really not the best places to eat. Instead, walk a little further and find places where the locals eat; food will be A LOT better tasting, really fresh and the prices will be normal.
  • Ask to be seated outside! One of the pleasures of dining in Italy is the option of having a leisurely meal sitting outside by the sidewalk, on the cobblestone streets, admiring the scenes as the world goes by. You lose all sense of time and place, food tastes better, conversation is great, and the whole experience becomes even more enjoyable 🙂 If you’re visiting in the summer, though, you might want to sit inside for the air conditioning !

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  • EAT FRUIT & DRINK FRESH JUICE / SMOOTHIES ! Italy has fantastic fruit during the summer. So buy some fruit and some corn flakes, and you’ll be set for mid-day or night hunger pangs, or for just snacking in between meals. We bought cherries, blackberries and banana, and had it with cornflakes and milk, for a healthy and nutritious breakfast. Also works out cheap!  Italy also has several juice bars that offer a variety of fruit juices – a combination of 3-4 fruits to make your own juice blend – with additions of peanut butter, yogurt and Nutella to make smoothies. Great way to stay hydrated – take advantage of it 🙂

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Fresh Carrot, Orange and Ginger Juice

  • Try the Italian Cornetto for breakfast! The Cornetto / Cornetti is an Italian relative of the croissant, standing for ‘little horn’. It comes plain, or filled with a variety of stuff (apricot jam, berry preserve, cherry, pastry cream/crema and cioccolato/chocolate!) This is lighter, sweeter and softer than a traditional croissant. A cornetto accompanied by a cappuccino is standard breakfast in Italy. You know what they say – “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – so try it ! 😀 Personally, I loved it and really recommend it to everyone. Seriously, don’t miss it 🙂
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Cornetto (with Apricot Jam)

  • One word – GELATO!!! The gelato is an Italian invention that I love from the bottom of my heart, fiercely and unabashedly. 😀 This is much creamier, velvety, and made out of natural ingredients, fruits and nuts; without any of the nasty preservatives, additives and colours that usual ice creams tend to have. Also, fresh fruit sorbets in Italy are amazingly delicious, and a must try. Eat one (or many) EVERYDAY! If you don’t , you will regret it. I promise.
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Gelato – Pistachio, Mango

  • DO NOT leave Italy without trying the ‘Tiramisu’. This is a cold dessert consisting of rum and espresso-soaked ladyfingers (or sponge) layered with mascarpone and whipped cream, with a dusting of cocoa powder on top. If you are a coffee drinker, this dessert is coffee heaven! 😀
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Tiramisu

Caution:

  • Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan, consists of the usage of animal rennet in its preparation. So we tend to avoid eating it. However, some restaurants offer a vegetarian or vegan alternative of some types of cheese. So when you order, don’t forget to ask if the cheese that is a part of your dishes is vegetarian.
  • Unless the restaurant calls itself ‘vegetariano’, you will have to ask if the pasta sauce contains meat, because they use leftover meat to enhance the flavor of the sauces. If you eat at a place that offers both veg and non-veg options, its important to ask if the pasta sauce is vegetarian as well.
  • Pastries and dessert, most often, will contain eggs. We don’t mind consuming them as part of breakfast pastries or dessert (occasionally) since we travel a lot, and that makes our food options quite limited. If you don’t consume eggs in any form at all, remember to ask if they have anything without eggs. You can safely opt for fruit sorbets and ‘Macedonia’ which is the word for fruit salad in Italian.
  • We’re not vegan, which means we do consume dairy products like cheese and milk.
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