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The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Italian Food
I do a lot of myth-busting about vegan Italian food here at the Nomadic Vegan. In addition to leading vegan Italy group tours, I've also written quite a few articles about vegan food in different parts of Italy, as well as lesser-known vegan dishes that are part of Italian cuisine.
But I've never compiled all my top travel tips for vegan travel in Italy into a single article. Until now! It's time to answer the big question once and for all:
Is Italy Vegan Friendly?
If you're worried about eating vegan in Italy, don't be. Italy is one of the most vegan friendly countries I've been to ... and I've been to more than 100 countries!
It's incredibly easy for travelers to Italy to eat vegan. Not just because of the growing number of vegan restaurants in the country, but because there are so many delicious vegan options that are part of traditional Italian cuisine.
And I'm not just talking about pizza and pasta dishes either. Italian cuisine is much more than that, and there are plenty of local specialties that vegans can enjoy.
My Favorite Vegan Italian Dish
Watch this video to find out all about my favorite vegan Italian dish!
Italian Food in Italy
The authentic Italian food that you'll find in Italy is quite different from the exported version that's served in Italian restaurants in other countries. The foundation of real Italian cuisine is cucina povera -- the food of the poor.
And what do poor people around the world eat? Mostly plants.
Italian cuisine varies quite a lot from region to region, so it's hard to generalize. But you will find, especially in the poorer regions in the south, that animal products are used sparingly, if at all, in many traditional dishes.
And olive oil is the cooking fat of choice, so you rarely have to worry about butter, ghee or other animal products hiding in an otherwise vegan dish.
Vegan Breakfast in Italy
The good news for vegans (and also for pigs and chickens) is that Italians never, and I mean never, eat bacon or eggs for breakfast. In fact, they are pretty disgusted by the thought of eating anything savory that early in the morning.
In Italy, breakfast (or ”colazione” in Italian) is a decidedly sweet affair. It's also a very light meal compared to a full English breakfast.
For most Italians, the most essential component of breakfast is coffee. This could be in the form of a shot of espresso, a caffè latte, or a cappuccino. It's worth noting that this is basically the only time of day when Italians will drink a cappuccino; after 11 a.m. it becomes socially unacceptable.
At home, most Italians will have cookies with their coffee. But if they eat out, then they will go to a bar, which is more like what we would think of as a café. At the bar, they will usually get a kind of pastry.
In southern and central Italy these are known as cornetti, whereas in the north they are called brioche. Don't confuse them with the sweet bread rolls sold in France though. Italian brioche are more like croissants, but again, not a French croissant. This is an Italian croissant, which has a different texture and is not as flaky or buttery as the ones sold in France.
On my last few trips to Italy, I've been pleasantly surprised to see that more and more bars are offering cornetti vegani (vegan croissants), even in smaller cities and towns. It's also pretty easy to find coffee drinks made with soy milk (latte di soia).
Common Foods in Italy
The four foods described in this section are the most common staple foods in Italy. All of them are either already vegan or can easily be made in a vegan version.
Is pizza vegan?
The original pizza, invented in Naples in the 18th century, is the pizza marinara. It's topped with tomato sauce, garlic and dried oregano, and maybe a few basil leaves. No cheese! And no other animal products either. The original pizza is 100% vegan, and it's still one of the most popular types of pizza in Italy.
In other countries, cheese is seen as an essential ingredient in pizza, but that's not the case in Italy. No one will bat an eyelid if you order your pizza senza formaggio (without cheese).
As for the dough, the traditional recipe calls for just four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. There are some chefs who add milk, eggs or even lard to their pizza dough, but this is not the norm.
A true Italian pizza base should be vegan, and any restaurant certified by L'Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (The True Neapolitan Pizza Association) must use only flour, water, salt and yeast in their pizza bases.
Pizza al taglio
This is the fast food version of Italian pizza. Whereas a regular pizzeria with table service serves round, individual-sized pizzas, a pizzeria al taglio makes its pizzas in huge, rectangular pans.
The pizza is sold by weight, so your slice can be as big or as small as you like. The fact that the pizzas are pre-made at a pizzeria al taglio means that it's not possible to order whichever one you want without cheese.
Nevertheless, it's highly likely that there will be at least one cheeseless option already there waiting for you. Two of the most common offerings in a pizzeria al taglio are pizza rossa and pizza bianca.
The first is basically a takeaway version of a pizza marinara and comes with just tomato sauce and perhaps some dried oregano or other herbs. Pizza bianca, on the other hand, is a basic pizza crust topped with nothing but olive oil, rosemary and garlic.
You might come across other vegan options too, such as pizza with potatoes and onions. This one is especially popular in Rome.
Can vegans eat pasta?
A lot of pasta is vegan, yes. You just need to make sure that there are no eggs in the pasta.
To make a sweeping generalization, we could say that dried pasta (pasta secca) is vegan, while fresh pasta (pasta fresca) contains eggs. But this does not always hold true. In southern regions like Puglia, even the fresh pasta is almost always made without eggs.
Conversely, you may come across tagliatelle or other types of dried pasta that do contain eggs. But restaurants in Italy will always have some type of eggless pasta on hand.
In the northern regions of Italy, it's not pasta but risotto that reigns supreme. Risotto is not traditionally a vegan dish, but it can be veganized easily enough.
This is because the butter and Parmesan cheese — the two non-vegan ingredients — are not added until the very end of the cooking process. And, contrary to what you might expect, they aren't what give risotto its distinctive creamy texture, either.
The secret to making creamy risotto is to use a good stock (make sure the chef uses vegetable stock rather than a meat stock) and to cook it at a gentle simmer, stirring constantly to make sure the rice absorbs the liquid evenly and doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
As for additional ingredients, there are many different plant-based foods that can be added to risotto — all kinds of vegetables, wild mushrooms or even truffles.
One of the most basic yet most famous risotto dishes is risotto alla milanese — a local specialty in Milan that is flavored with saffron, giving it a distinctive yellow hue.
Polenta was once the staple diet of rural Italian families throughout central and northern Italy, from Emilia Romagna all the way up to the border with Switzerland. This is the northern version of cucina povera.
It's a thick porridge made by boiling coarsely ground cornmeal in water, somewhat similar to the “grits” eaten in the southern United States.
Once cooked, it can be eaten right away as a thick, doughy porridge that serves as a starchy base for a meal, in place of rice, bread or potatoes. Alternatively, it can be poured into a shallow pan and left to cool and set. The polenta is then cut into slabs and either served as is or grilled or fried to add extra flavor.
The basic recipe for polenta is vegan; all that's required is cornmeal, water and a bit of salt and olive oil. Some chefs do add butter, though, or occasionally even milk or meat broth in place of the water, so be sure to ask.
Italy for Veggie Lovers
The four foods above are just the staples; there are thousands of individual dishes that can be made using these staples as a base. I’ll describe a few of these dishes in the next section as I walk you through a traditional Italian restaurant menu.
But the dishes described in this article are by no means the only vegan Italian food options in Italy. On the contrary, there are hundreds of vegan Italian dishes!
The ones listed here are just the most common ones that you are likely to find no matter where you are in the country.
But Italian cuisine is actually dozens of different cuisines in one, as local specialties vary tremendously from one region to the next.
In my upcoming book, Italy for Veggie Lovers, I describe the cuisine in each of the 20 regions of Italy in detail and list examples of vegan local dishes from each region.
If you love tasting local specialties and exploring a destination’s culture through its cuisine, Italy for Veggie Lovers is your perfect companion on your next trip to Italy.
The book is not available just yet, but you can grab the first chapter for free here! You’ll also be the first to be notified when the book is released.
How to Read an Italian Menu
When traveling in Italy, it's important to know that an Italian menu is always divided into courses. Typically, the antipasti (starters) come first, followed by the primi piatti (first dishes), the secondi piatti (second dishes), and finally the dolci (desserts).
This doesn't mean that you have to indulge in a four-course feast every time you sit down at a restaurant in Italy. There have been plenty of times when I’ve ordered just a primo piatto as my meal.
It's good to keep in mind, however, that ordering two or three courses is the norm, and that the portion sizes for each course are adjusted accordingly and might be smaller than what you are used to.
Traditional Italian Menu Courses
Vegan Italian Starters (Antipasti)
Antipasti are basically the equivalent of appetizers or starters. In Italian, a “pasto” is a meal, so an antipasto is something that you eat before the meal. These often come as a mixed platter that's intended to be shared by everyone at the table.
Some common vegan antipasti:
Toasted garlic bread. Eaten plain or with toppings such as diced tomatoes (pomodoro), artichoke spread (crema di carciofi), eggplant spread (crema di melanzane), or olive tapenade (crema di olive).
Despite the word "cream" in the name, these usually don't contain any cream, though some cooks will add cheese to the recipe. In the case of crema di olive, the non-vegan ingredient to watch out for is anchovies.
Grilled vegetables, which will probably include eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers, although in the north you may come across grilled onions or even potatoes in the mix.
A type of bread, similar to an Italian pizza base, which is made in many different ways throughout Italy. It can be thick or thin, depending on the region. One of the most common toppings is sea salt and rosemary.
Ball of deep-fried pizza dough. Known as "zeppole" in Naples and as "pettole" in Puglia.
Vegan Italian Pasta, Soups and Risotto (Primi)
The antipasti section of the menu will be followed by the primi. This is usually just translated literally as “first courses”, and to be honest I don't really have a better suggestion, even though I don't think “first courses” is a very helpful translation for non-Italian speakers.
It's hard to translate because in English-speaking countries we don't divide our meals into courses the way Italians do. In the UK or the US, a typical meal would consist of a slab of meat, a vegetable side dish, and some rice, potatoes or pasta as an accompaniment. In Italy, however, those would be three different dishes, and they would all be ordered separately.
A primo is generally a carbohydrate-rich, starchy dish, such as pasta, polenta or risotto. Soups also fall into this category.
Some common vegan primi:
Pasta e Ceci
A hearty soup made with a small pasta shape, such as ditalini, and chickpeas in a thick broth of tomatoes, onions, celery and carrots. The base of the soup is normally either vegetable broth or the cooking water that the chickpeas were boiled in.
Pasta e Fagioli
The wonderfully thick stew known as pasta e fagioli is one of the most popular traditional dishes in all of Italian cuisine and can be found in various versions all along the peninsula. The sauce is typically made with beans, celery, tomatoes, parsley, oregano, garlic and crushed red peppers. Depending on the region, some cooks may add animal products, so be sure to ask.
This spicy pasta dish is usually made with penne pasta, but you might also see the same sauce served with spaghetti. In any case, both of these pasta shapes are dried pasta and are normally made without eggs.
The word "arrabbiata" translates as "angry" and refers to the fiery kick to the sauce, which is made with tomatoes, garlic, chili pepper, and parsley. Penne all'arrabbiata is sometimes eaten with grated Pecorino cheese, so you might want to say "senza formaggio" (without cheese) when you place your order.
Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
This is one of many very simple dishes in Italian cuisine that rely on fresh, high-quality ingredients to really make the flavors pop. It consists of nothing more than spaghetti tossed with small red chili peppers and garlic that has been lightly sautéed in olive oil.
The dish can be made even simpler (and milder) by leaving out the chili peppers, in which case it's just called "spaghetti aglio olio". It's often sprinkled with parsley before serving.
Pasta alla Norma
This dish originated in the city of Catania in Sicily and is supposedly named after the opera Norma, written by Catania-born composer Vincenzo Bellini. The sauce is a simple combination of tomato and basil, with the addition of chunks of eggplant.
Cheese is often grated over the top, so just ask for it without (senza formaggio). While it's definitely a Sicilian specialty dish, its popularity has spread to other parts of the country.
Vegan Italian Pizza
You might be wondering where pizza fits in to the Italian restaurant menu scheme. Not every restaurant in Italy serves pizza, but those that do will place it in a separate category on the menu.
Pizza is neither a primo nor a secondo; it’s a piatto unico. Pizzas come in only one size in Italy, and each pizza is intended to be a single serving for one person. This serving size is actually quite large, so you won’t have room for much else after finishing off a real Italian pizza.
You’ll always find the original pizza marinara on the menu, which is already vegan by default.
There will usually also be a pizza with vegetables, called a pizza vegetariana or a pizza ortolana, and this is likely to include Italian veggies like eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers and onions. It will come with mozzarella by default, so again, just say “senza formaggio”.
And a growing number of restaurants are now offering vegan cheese too!
Vegan Italian Main Course (Secondi)
We're not going to spend much time looking at this section of the menu because, to be honest, there's not much here that's of interest to us. Remember the slab of meat that was the main focus of our combined plate in an American or British restaurant? Yeah, well, that's the secondo in an Italian meal.
I usually just skip over this section of the menu entirely without even glancing at it. The one exception to this is if I'm in a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, or a restaurant that I know is making an intentional effort to cater to customers looking for vegan options.
I’ve written “main course” here because that’s how it’s usually translated on menus, but actually this translation of secondi kind of irks me. While it's true that a meat or fish dish like those found among the secondi would be viewed as the main component of a meal served in Cambridge or California, this is not true in Italy.
On the contrary, it's quite common to order only a primo or only a secondo, especially at dinner. Lunch is the main meal of the day in Italy and is more likely to be composed of multiple courses. But even then, anything goes. You're not going to be given any strange looks if you just stick to the antipasti and the primi. Oh, and let's not forget the contorni!
Vegan Italian Side Dishes (Contorni)
Contorni are simply side dishes. Whereas in English-speaking countries these often come with the dish automatically (and are already chosen for you), in Italy they are always listed separately.
The disadvantage of this is that you will have to pay extra for them, but the advantage is that you get to order the one you really want. And if you can't decide, you can order several and make a whole meal out of contorni!
You are pretty much guaranteed to find some veggie dishes in this section of the menu. If you're health conscious and want to make sure you get enough dark leafy greens in your diet, you'll be happy to know that greens are highly appreciated in Italy and are one of the most common types of side dishes served.
Some common vegan contorni:
There are a number of different greens that often make an appearance on menus, such as cicoria (chicory), scarola (escarole) and cime di rapa (broccoli rabe).
These may be served with simply a dash of salt and olive oil, or they may come in a more elaborate dressing, like a mix of garlic, olive oil and spicy red pepper, or raisins, pine nuts, olives and capers.
Potatoes often show up in the contorni section, either baked in the oven and sprinkled with rosemary (patate al forno) or fried as French fries (patatine fritte).
This popular dish is a kind of vegetable stew in a sweet and sour sauce flavored with sweetened vinegar. Eggplant always features prominently, and there are usually some capers thrown into the mix, but the rest of the ingredients can vary.
Caponata is a Sicilian specialty but is often served in other parts of Italy too.
There will almost always be at least one kind of salad on the menu, and often there will be a list of five or six different options. You could be forgiven for looking for these in the antipasti section of the menu, but that's not where you'll find them.
In Italy, salads are usually eaten at the end of the meal. They will mostly likely be among the contorni, unless there is a separate insalate section of the menu.
You generally don't need to worry about avoiding creamy salad dressings, as these are not common at all in Italy. Most of the time, salads are dressed with just a simple mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Vegan Italian Desserts (Dolci)
If you've ever looked for a vegan dessert while eating out in any Western country, you probably know that they can be hard to come by. Italy is no different in this regard, and most Italian desserts do contain milk or eggs, with one important exception: gelato!
Is gelato vegan?
For the complete answer to this question, see my article on vegan gelato in Italy. But the short answer is yes, vegan gelato is very easy to come by, and most gelaterie will have at least a few vegan flavors.
The fruit flavors are generally sorbets made with nothing but fresh fruit, water, and sugar. The dark chocolate flavor is dairy-free and often vegan as well, though some places do add egg whites.
And, in response to increasing demand, many gelaterie are now offering other gelato flavors, such as pistachio or hazelnut, that are made with soy milk or other plant-based milks. Some cones are vegan, but if not, you can always have your gelato in a cup instead.
Veganized Italian Desserts
Vegan desserts are not all that common yet in mainstream restaurants in Italy, but at vegan, vegetarian, and even some veg-friendly restaurants, you can find veganized versions of traditional Italian desserts.
So don't worry, you don't have to miss out on tiramisu, panna cotta or cannoli. They're all availabe in vegan forms.
Vegan Italian Restaurant Recommendations
Here’s a shortlist of some of my favorite restaurants for vegan food in Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples.
Vegan Restaurants Rome
None of these are actually fully vegan restaurants. I haven’t been to many of Rome’s vegan restaurants, because for the most part they are inconveniently located out in the suburbs.
But that’s OK, because there are some amazing vegan options in the city center. For more vegan friendly restaurants in Rome, see my vegan dining guide to central Rome.
Vegan Restaurants Florence
Trattoria Enzo e Piero
Nirvana is mostly vegan, while the other two are vegan friendly. Mister Pizza offers vegan cheese as well as gluten-free crust. Trattoria Enzo e Piero is a typical Italian trattoria with several vegan Florentine specialties on the menu.
Vegan Restaurants Venice
La Tecia Vegana
La Tecia Vegana and Vgoloso are both fully vegan but are not super centrally located. La Tecia Vegana especially is worth the trip, though. For somethingcloser to the main sights, try Orient Express, which offers some great vegan options.
My article on vegan food in Venice is a bit outdated now, but I will be updating it soon, so watch this space!
Vegan Restaurants Naples
Pizzeria Di Matteo
Cavoli Nostri is fully vegan, while Vero Gastrobar is vegetarian. Di Matteo is neither, but it serves the best pizza marinara in Naples. For more recommendations, check out my vegan restaurant guide to Naples, Italy.
In addition to the vegan Italian city guides linked above, here are some more articles I've written about vegan food in Italy:
Vegan Shopping in Italy
If you want to self-cater some of your own meals in Italy, NaturaSì is a good place to stock up on groceries. It’s a national chain of stores that sell all organic, non-GMO products, including fresh produce as well as packaged foods and cosmetics and personal hygiene products.
Here you’ll find vegan snacks like energy bars and chocolates, as well as tempeh, seitan, veggie burger patties and other quick fixes.
Rome also has a fully vegan shop near the Vatican, called iVegan. And don’t forget Italy’s wonderful produce markets. They’re a joy to wander around, even if you’re not looking to buy anything.
Vegan Shoes Italy
Italy is famous for its handmade leather shoes, but a few brands have ditched the leather in favor of more compassionate and eco-friendly materials.
Useful Italian Phrases about Food
I am vegan (male/female)
Io sono vegano/vegana
We are vegan
Noi siamo vegani
I don't eat animal products
Io non mangio prodotti di origine animale
frutti di mare
Does it contain eggs?
bell peppers (NOT spicy sausage!)
latte di soia
the bill, please
il conto, per favore