Vegan Italian Food, 20 Dishes from 20 Regions
We love vegan Italian food (who doesn’t?) and so when Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan offered to give us a vegan tour of this fabulous country we couldn’t resist taking her up on the offer. Here’s her guest post, Vegan Italian Food, 20 Dishes from 20 Regions which gives you the lowdown on all the delicious, naturally vegan food you can find in one of the best countries on the planet to eat in.
When you hear the words “Italian food”, what images pop into your head? Unless you happen to be Italian yourself, I’m willing to bet that they all involve pizza or pasta. And they’re probably all smothered in cheese? Of course there is plenty of that, but in reality, the cuisine in Italy varies drastically from one region to the next. Plus every city and town prides itself on its local specialities. The good news is, many of those local specialities are vegan!
Like so many aspects of the cuisine, the level of vegan-friendliness also varies from region to region. The general rule is that the further south you go, the better it gets. Nevertheless, even the mountainous areas of the far north still have plant-based culinary traditions just waiting to be discovered. Let’s take a tour of Italy’s 20 regions and sneak a peek at what each of them has to offer!
OK, so these are breadsticks, but not just any breadsticks! No siree. An obligatory start to any dinner in Piemonte, grissini are one of the most well-known specialities to come out of Torino (Turin). The production of grissini has become a real art form. The ones pictured on the left in the photo are known in the local dialect as grissini rubatà (rolled grissini). These are the oldest and most traditional form. The name refers to the fact that they must be rolled out by hand to achieve their distinctive shape.
While methods for baking focaccia vary throughout Italy, the most famous version is the classic, spongy bread, ubiquitous in the coastal region of Liguria. In its most basic form, it may be topped with nothing but coarse salt and plenty of olive oil. Rosemary and tomatoes are also popular toppings (the variations are limitless).
This traditional pasta dish from Milan is made from shell pasta (conchiglie in Italian). It’s topped with a thick, rich tomato-based sauce with borlotti beans and chunks of pumpkin, seasoned with sage and rosemary. This same combination of pumpkin and beans also sometimes appears in soups, either with or without the pasta.
We’re in mountain country up here and the local cuisine is a rustic, hearty affair. In many ways, it more closely resembles the food eaten in neighbouring Austria and Switzerland than the pizza and pasta dishes found in other parts of Italy. While meat and cheese do feature heavily here, two common staples are risotto and polenta, which can easily be made vegan. Polenta is a simple dish of cornmeal and water cooked into a porridge (somewhat like the “grits” eaten in the southern US). Mushrooms (funghi) are a popular topping.
The name of this very traditional speciality translates literally as “donkey soup”. Don’t worry, no donkeys were harmed in the making of this dish! It’s also known as zuppa fredda (cold soup). Neither name is very accurate as it’s not really a soup at all. In fact, it’s a dessert! A very rustic, incredibly simple and slightly inebriating dessert. Essentially, zuppa dell’asino is nothing more than rye bread soaked in mulled wine and then chilled. Though the traditional recipe stops here, I prefer to add toppings such as berries, chocolate chips or non-dairy yoghurt.
Like many Italian dishes, the full flavour of this soup comes from soffritto. Soffritto is a simple but essential base made from a mix of finely diced sautéed onions, carrots and celery. The name minestra ‘orzo e fasoi’ simply means “barley and bean soup” in the local dialect spoken in Trieste. Seasoned with parsley and basil, it’s a hearty meal that will keep you warm on wintery days, even when the dreaded bora wind sweeps along the Adriatic coast.
This pasta dish is a traditional recipe from the town of Belluno, which lies about 100km north of Venice. It’s made with bucatini (a long pasta similar to spaghetti, but hollow in the middle), which is tossed in a tomato and basil sauce with a mix of vegetables that includes peppers, zucchini and carrots.
Strozzapreti are a form of hand-rolled pasta typically seen in home cooking in this region. They were traditionally viewed as poor people’s pasta (pasta povera) because they are made with simple, cheap ingredients. In other words, not eggs! The name means something like “priest strangler”. One of the many proposed origins of this peculiar name is that when Romagna was ruled by the Holy See, people had to pay taxes to the Church in the form of eggs. As they made pasta for their families out of what was left in their pantry (just flour), housewives cursed the priests, saying they hoped they choked on the eggs. Strozzapreti are pictured here with zucchini and porcini mushrooms – just one of many possibilities.
Throughout the rest of Italy, Tuscans are known as mangiafagioli or ‘bean eaters’. This classic white bean stew from Florence is just one of many bean-filled dishes to come out of the region. Served in nearly every typical trattoria in the city, it’s often treated as an accompaniment for meat-based dishes but can also be served on its own over toast. Oh, and the name literally means “beans little bird style”, but once again this is a misnomer. No birds here! Just sage-flavoured tomato sauce.
This recipes hails from the province of Pesaro Urbino in the Marche region and features lentils cooked in a simple tomato sauce, served over shell pasta. Lentils were traditionally a highly-prized staple dish in this region. Lentil stew with carrots was eaten on New Year’s eve and represented prosperity for the coming year.
The hearty stew known as pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) is one of the most popular traditional dishes in all of Italian cuisine. It can be found in various versions all along the peninsula. In Umbria, it’s infused with saffron (zafferano), a highly-sought-after spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus. Saffron has been cultivated in this region since at least the 13th century and appears in many local dishes.
Gnocchi made from potatoes are extremely popular in Lazio and in the city of Rome they are traditionally eaten on Thursdays. Even today, some restaurants still follow this tradition and will not serve gnocchi on any other day of the week! While some cooks add an egg to the dough, this is entirely optional; just be sure to ask. Gnocchi crop up in some fun proverbs and idioms in Italian. For example, if someone cracks up laughing for no apparent reason you can say, “ridi ridi che la mamma ha fatto gli gnocchi” (“laugh, laugh, because mamma made gnocchi”). Another great one for vegans to learn is “gnocchi, rape, fave e ceci due ti saziano per dieci”. The general meaning of this one is that even just a couple bites of plant-based foods like gnocchi, turnips, fava beans and chickpeas will keep you feeling full.
In Abruzzo, this is a local variant of the more famous version of pasta e ceci found in Roman cuisine. Most commonly eaten in the autumn, it consists of chickpeas cooked with any type of small pasta (ditalini are often used, as pictured here) in a tomato-based soup flavoured with garlic and bay leaves.
In Molise, the flavour of young nettle stalks (ortiche) is considered a delicacy in the spring. It’s arrival is even more eagerly awaited than that of asparagus! This delicate soup should be made in that season, when nettle stalks are at their most tender. And yes, these are the same stinging nettles that are dreaded by hikers in Europe. No need to worry though, they lose their sting when you cook them.
The people of Naples invented pizza in the mid-19th century and have been perfecting their craft ever since. A far cry from the artery-clogging fast food version sold in the US, real Neapolitan pizza is made from the simplest of ingredients. In fact, the original pizza, and still one of the most popular in Naples, is the marinara. This is topped with nothing but tomato sauce, oregano, garlic and olive oil and is totally vegan! The addition of mozzarella cheese, found on pizza margherita, did not come about until 1889. It was added along with basil to impress Queen Margherita of Savoy (and to represent the red, white and green colours of the Italian flag).
Orecchiette, literally “little ears”, are one of the most common forms of pasta made in the southern regions of Basilicata and Puglia. And the great thing about this pasta, and many others found in the south, is that it is never made with eggs! Even when made fresh by hand, the recipe calls only for semolina flour and water. A very popular way to serve orecchiette in the south is with broccoli rabe (cime di rapa). While in Puglia this dish is often topped with anchovies, in Basilicata you’re likely to find it served with a sprinkling of peperoni cruschi – sweet peppers that have been dried until they become crunchy like potato chips!
In southern Italy, you certainly don’t have to worry about getting your daily serving of leafy greens. Or legumes, for that matter. Like orecchiette con cime di rapa, this dish is also extremely popular in Puglia and consists of puréed fava beans and wild chicory leaves. These two ingredients can be served side by side or mixed together, and often come with a few slices of crusty, toasted bread for dipping. Sometimes served as an antipasto at the start of a meal, fave e cicorie can also stand on its own as a primo piatto.
Lagane is long pasta similar to tagliatelle, except that, true to its southern roots, it is made without eggs. The name “lagane” actually harkens back to the days of ancient Rome, when flour and water were mixed to make something called “lagana” that could be considered a prototype of modern pasta. The only difference was that the ancient Romans fried their lagana in olive oil rather than boiling it. In this more modern version, lagane are served with chickpeas in a simple tomato and garlic sauce.
This typical Sicilian pasta dish is a local speciality in the city of Catania, though you’ll also find it served elsewhere on the island and beyond. It’s usually made with a short pasta like penne or rigatoni, which comes served in a tomato sauce with basil and chunks of fried eggplant. It’s said to be named after the “Norma” opera written by one of Catania’s most famous home-grown legends, composer Vincenzo Bellini. While ricotta cheese is usually grated over the top, it’s no problem to ask for it to be left off.
Even though Sardegna is an island surrounded by the Mediterranean sea, surprisingly, its traditional cuisine did not use seafood. Victims of frequent invasions, the Sardinian people fled from the coast, took refuge in the mountains and lived off the land. While this certainly involved eating land animals, beans and other legumes also featured heavily in their diet. Typical pasta shapes like fregula and malloreddus are popular, both of which are vegan and are found only in Sardegna. Vegetables are abundant in Sardinian cuisine, like the tomatoes and eggplant in melanzane alla sarda (Sardinian-style eggplant). Light, refreshing and versatile, it can be served either hot or cold and works either as a side dish or as a main.
And that concludes our whistle-stop tour around Italy, but there’s soooo much more to explore!
About the author: Wendy Werneth is an intrepid traveller, vegan foodie and polyglot. Having become vegan after many years of travel across 7 continents and nearly 100 countries, she’s now on a mission to show the world how fun and fulfilling vegan travel can be. You can follow her adventures at The Nomadic Vegan and download her free mini ebook, 8 Steps for Fun and Easy Vegan Travel.