Kate McElwee is a lifelong vegetarian and a decade-long vegan who’s been living and working in Rome for a number of years. Kate is American so she has great insight into what it means to be vegan in the United States and here in Italy. She shared these nine tips for enjoyable vegan eating in Italy, plus a whole lot more. You can find Kate on Instagram.
Abundant fresh produce and eating vegan in Italy
Although every season of the year in every part of Italy there is a wealth of fabulous produce available the percentage of vegans in the population is still quite low, somewhere just above 5%.
Italians love vegetables and celebrate them at every meal along with wonderful cheeses like Parmesan or pecorino, mozzarella and other cheeses. Meat or fish are also usually part of most meals but in moderate portions. Eggs are also a mainstay within the Italian diet and are used to make fresh pasta and dishes like frittate.
Veganism versus a plant-based diet
Both of these diets are plant-based, but eating vegan goes a step further into lifestyle choices that encompass clothing, cleaning and beauty products, self-care products, and home decor. Vegans don’t wear clothes made from animals like furs, shoes or jackets, and opt for soaps made with plant-based ingredients rather than animal-based ingredients. A person who follows a plant-based diet might not necessarily adhere to these stricter interpretations that exclude the use of animal products beyond dietary choices.
The top 9 tips for joyful vegan eating in Italy
Kate has found that one of the hardest parts of being vegan in Italy is disappointing Italians who are anxious to share their favorite dish or regional specialty with you. She says the Italian meal is like a symphony and if you don’t participate in each of its movements it can be a disappointment. Kate has wonderful philosophical insights on how to approach meals in Italy as a vegan:
1. Each meal is not your last meal, or Thanksgiving
When you’re a guest in an Italian home or out for dinner you may not find everything you hoped for at a meal. Because the country is vegetable-rich there’s almost something at every meal you can find to enjoy, from the wonderful bread to amazing vegetable side dishes.
2. Discover Italy‘s accidental vegan dishes
Every area of Italy has its own fabulous regional specialties, and many of these are what she calls accidental vegan dishes.
Caponata is one of these: a rich side dish stew of eggplant, peppers, zucchini and olives - and other ingredients depending on personal whim. Caponata is a Sicilian specialty and Sicilians often can it to eat year-round as a side dish or on its own with wonderful bread and a salad.
Flour and water pasta
As you move south within Italy you encounter wonderful flour and water based pastas like orecchiette and cavatelli. Bothe are delicious alternatives to the northern Italian egg-based pasta.
If you’d like to try your hand at making cavatelli, take a look at this recipe and watch this video:
Fennel and orange salad
Another of Kate’s favorite accidental vegan dishes is fennel, orange and olive salad. Here’s the recipe.
3. Celebrate the single ingredient in Italy
Italians love to follow the seasons in their cookery and when a delicious ingredient is in season it’s celebrated to the fullest, on its own.
During artichoke season they’re made Roman style, deep fried “alla giudia” or shaved and added to a salad.
Kate and I both love porcini mushrooms. Instead of a main course meat dish there’s nothing better than grilled porcini mushrooms, lightly salted and drizzled with olive oil, then topped with some freshly chopped parsley.
They’re also wonderful served with pasta: sautéed in olive oil with a hint of garlic and hot chili pepper, or with a few tomatoes.
4. Treat a restaurant menu as an opening argument
When you dine out approach your meal with an open mind and use the menu as an opening argument to work with your server to build yourself a delicious vegan meal. Italian servers and restaurant owners want you to thoroughly enjoy your meal and are always willing to go the extra mile to prepare something special for you.
5. Choose foods from Italian restaurant antipasto tables
Italians are magicians with vegetables and their antipasto tables are fabulous. This is always my first stop in any Italian restaurant and often my dining experience ends right there. The abundance of the antipasto table is usually enough for me when I dine out. One of my favorite antipasto tables is at the Orso 80 restaurant right near Piazza Navona and the Pantheon in Rome.
6. Buying vegan food in Rome
The first place to shop is at any of the wonderful markets within the city. A few of the larger markets are the Trionfale market and the Piazza Vittorio market.
Piazza Vittorio also has a great selection of international foods like tahini, gochujang and miso.
Kate suggests ivegan for vegan foods, in Rome’s Cipro area.
7. What is the experience of the bite you are looking for?
Kate suggest this as a good question to ask yourself when you’re eating vegan in Italy, or anywhere. What are you looking for in your meal and or a dish? Is it smokiness? Creaminess? A certain texture or flavor? You can achieve these and other food experiences with many vegan ingredients. For example a great way to achieve creaminess is with nutritional yeast. Read all about yeast here.
8. Umami, the fifth taste
Umami is what most people look for in a meal: that sense of savoriness that takes any dish to the next level. Bottom line, umami is the presence of glutamates in food and every cuisine worldwide has unique ways to achieve umami or a sense of savoriness.
Certain ingredients - porcini mushrooms or aged foods like prosciutto - are naturally rich in umami or glutamates.
You can add umami to a dish by browning foods, or adding elements like miso or gochujang.
When you're eating vegan in a restaurant in Italy you might find umami in a dish like grilled vegetables. One of my favorites is pan seared porcini mushrooms.
Read all about umami here.
9. Vegan restaurants and shops in Italy
If your heart is set on eating at a vegan restaurant in Italy or do you want to purchase some vegan food items your best bet is to consult the happycow.net website for locations close to where you are in Italy.
Kate recently discovered this great mostly vegan restaurant in Rome: Ristorante Cantina 26.
A vegan diet and nutrition
There’s absolutely no reason to be anything but healthy on a vegan diet. The only missing nutritional element is vitamin B 12 which is found in meat and fish. The solution is to take a weekly B 12 dietary supplement: consult your physician for details.
A vegan diet during pregnancy, and when breast-feeding
Vegans have healthy pregnancies and breast-fed babies. As is the case during any pregnancy or the breast-feeding months it’s always best to consult your physician regarding any special dietary needs you may have.
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