Italy can be a great destination for vegetarian and vegan travelers by doing a little bit of research and planning beforehand.
Roman culture has a strong tradition of vegetarianism. Some Romans were influenced by the Greek philosopher and famous vegetarian Pythagoras, and Epicurus, who advocated vegetarianism as part of a cruelty-free and pleasure-filled lifestyle and from whom we get the term epicurean.
Most notably, the Roman senator Seneca was a vegetarian and Roman gladiators usually bulked up on the vegetarian fare of barley and beans to keep them fat, since meat portions were small and lean.
This tradition of vegetarianism is present in Italy today. A 2011 study suggested that 10% of Italians are vegetarian and Italy has the largest percentage of vegetarians in the European Union. Veganism is less common since dairy and eggs are staples, but it is certainly possible to eat well while traveling in Italy as a vegan.
Italian food served in Italy is not the same as that served in the United States because:
- Italians rarely use butter and many restaurants won't even stock butter in their kitchens. Olive oil is usually the fat of choice, which is helpful to vegans.
- Cheese, similarly, isn't usually offered to top pasta except in tourist restaurants. Further, it's not uncommon to find cheeseless pizza or pizza marinara, on menus.
- Most Italian menus are split into the following categories:
- Antipasti (appetizers)
- Primi piatti (first courses)
- Secondi piatti (main courses)
- Contorni (side items/vegetables)
- Dolci (dessert)
- As a general rule, most primi piatti and contorni will be vegetarian and/or vegan while the secondi piatti will focus on meat.
- But, all this being said, many Italian dishes will have hidden meat in it. Most soups will be made with beef or chicken broth. Fritti misto (or mixed batter-fried dishes) may be stuffed with pork or beef. Guanciale (cured pork jowl) is used frequently as a base in certain sauces, including pasta alla amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara. Cream or eggs are frequently used as the base in desserts.
How to Order
Many Italians speak English. But, to be on the safe side, it's important to specify your food restrictions.
The most important thing to remember is that Italians (and most Europeans, for that matter) do not understand the word "vegetarian" as we do in English. If you tell the waiter that you are vegetarian (sono un vegetariano), he may bring you a meat-based soup or a pasta with pancetta in it, because it is mostly made with vegetables. In fact, many Italians who self-describe as vegetarians will happily eat a dish with small amounts of meat and still consider themselves vegetarian.
Instead, when you order a dish, make sure you ask:
- E senza carne? - Is it without meat?
- E senza formaggio? - Is it without cheese?
- E senza latte? - Is it without milk?
- E senza uova? - Is it without eggs?
If you want to order a dish without any of those ingredients you simply name the dish and say "senza" your restriction. For example, if you want to order pasta with tomato sauce without cheese, ask the waiter for pasta marinara senza formaggio.