I’m not sure if Italy knows this yet, but it really is vegan at heart. You’ll find a treasure trove of plant-based options in Italian cuisine. Here are my vegan highlights for travelling to southern Italy.
Order from the top of the menu.
Before we delve into the south of Italy, let me offer you a helpful tip. When ordering at a restaurant, choose from the top of the menu. That’s where you’ll find most of the vegan gems. I often order pasta with a simple tomato based sauce with a hint of chilli (Penne Arrabbiata) or even spaghetti with oil and garlic (Spaghetti Aglio e Olio). For pizza, plain is best because Italians know what pizza is all about - the base and the sauce are the true stars of the show. Order a Pizza Marinara. For sides, try the sautéed greens. I couldn’t get enough of the lightly-fried, garlicky chicory. If you’re doing your own cooking, check out the grocery stores, which are often stocked with a few vegan products. Or get into the spirit of things and visit a fruit and vegetable market.
Southern Italy – for richer for poorer.
Historically, southern Italy has been economically poorer than the north. Usually when a nation or region is struggling, it has to cut back on food luxuries. The world over, meat has always been a luxury for the poor, an occasional addition instead of the main meal. The south of Italy reflects this in their diet, and thankfully, their devotion to traditional recipes has resulted in regional dishes remaining the same today. Pure, unpretentious, satisfying, authentic food, with an abundance of flavour. In the south, vegan travellers are more likely to find pasta ‘senza uova’ (without eggs). There is an abundance of flour, with wheat fields stretching across the region. Just add some water and you have the basis for the best Italian cuisine has to offer: pasta, pizza and bread. Italy really is vegan at heart.
Catch the train, bus or car (if you’re adventurous) and head towards the Campania, Basilicata and Puglia regions. On the way south, stop off at a service station – another gastronomical vegan paradise. You won’t see a plethora of candy and crisps. Here you’ll find rows of dried pasta, packets of bread sticks and taralli (crispy biscuits that are shaped like rings) jars of marinated vegetables, and of course, a busy espresso bar. Buy yourself some jars (and I mean plural) of marinated artichokes to enjoy throughout your trip. For snacking, pick up some pepper or fennel infused taralli before heading over to the bar and shot back a strong espresso, ‘un cafe.’ You’ll think this is gourmet. But it’s actually just everyday fare. We could learn a thing or two from the Italians. Who says ‘convenience food’ needs to be unhealthy?
Campania – the flavour trail.
Whether you head inland to the unspoiled hill top villages or to the famous coastal towns of the Amalfi Coast, you will be treated to some of the best fruit and vegetables you’ve ever tasted. The sweet ripened tomatoes of the Campania region come in all shapes and sizes. Pop a cherry tomato in your mouth and you’ll never have the same taste explosion as you did that day on the slopes of the Amalfi Coast. You can’t leave without sipping on an ice-cold limoncello. You just can’t. And if you’re a foodie like I am, you’ll stay at Villa Antica Macina, a B&B that is perched on the fertile slopes of Nocelle, a tiny village with the best birds eye view of Positano and the Tyrrhenian Sea. No cars or roads in this quaint little town, only room for a donkey or two. The wonderful B&B host Amalia, grows her own organic produce, which she’ll generously pick for you. You’ll have sun ripened strawberries (fragole) welcome you to your breakfast (colazione) table and upon arrival she might even cook you up a big bowl of spaghetti with home grown zucchini, basil and lashings of the best olive oil.
Benevento - the undiscovered 'true Italy'
If you're wanting to escape the crowds, then jump off the tourist trail by visiting the province of Benevento, in the Campania region. You will not only see some beautiful countryside but you'll also experience the 'true Italy.' This phrase is thrown around a lot these days, as a travel feature, but isn't the 'true Italy' about being surrounded by Italians doing what they do in every day life? Humble and unassuming - there's no better place to practice your Italian language in places such as these. This province also holds a special place in my heart, my father was born in the small town of Molinara (80km northeast of Naples). Meander through the old town, which has been lovingly restored, after being largely destroyed in the 1962 earthquake. There you will find gorgeous views of the rolling hills and a little pizzeria Pizzeria Al Borgo, with some tasty vegan options. On a hot day in summer, we had the place to ourselves, with a view to die for.
In the capital city of Benevento (the province also bears the same name) you'll find ancient architecture with the Arch of Trajan and Roman Amphitheatre. There's also a very pretty garden, Villa Comunale, to stroll through. With many restaurants, you'll have no trouble finding vegan options on most menus. One of the most intriguing facts about Benevento is its witch history and culture. The legend of witches in Benevento dates back to the 13th century. Benevento is also the home of Strega Alberti liqueur ('Witch's Liqueur') a unique herbal liqueur of a golden yellow colour made from saffron. You can visit the store in Benevento and try a shot of the liqueur, which also happens to be vegan. Strega also makes many sweets, most of which are not vegan (though some are!) but no matter, the bottles, tins and artwork are so gorgeous, you'll feel thoroughly satisfied. If this witch liqueur fascinates you, you can even visit the Strega museum in Benevento. It's certainly worth timing your visit to early July as the city comes alive with the Feast of the Madonna delle Grazie. With gorgeous lights, mountains of food, rides, shopping and more.
Basilicata – the wheat belt.
Travelling by car, you will see the sprawling Basilicata countryside, undulating fields of wheat and gorgeous hill top towns. One of the best reasons to travel to this region is to visit the city of Matera, the 2019 European Capital of Culture. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city centre allows you to step back in time to a maze of houses built into caves. It’s a fascinating and lively place to visit and much loved by film crews for it’s historical aesthetic (it doubled as Jerusalem in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ). But despite gorging on all this history and culture, Matera also offers many options for vegan feasting. Try the delicious durum sourdough bread, shaped like the stones of Matera, which is said to be better for digestion than regular bread. Why not sample the local produce and pick up some black chickpeas (ceci neri). If you’re staying in the old city (and I highly recommend you do!) book into Hotel Residence San Giorgio. I emailed ahead requesting some vegan breakfast provisions and provide they did, with soy milk, yoghurt, breads and biscuits. Not only that, you get to stay in a rustic room that has been caved out of rock. It’s quite an experience.
While in Matera, choose from many vegan friendly restaurants, including Fior di Cacuzza, a vegetarian/vegan only restaurant with something other than pizza and pasta on the menu. The atmosphere is welcoming and the food simple yet tasty. Here we enjoyed organic wine and the largest plate of lightly battered and fried vegetables (verdura fritta) I’ve ever seen. For amazing views of the twinkling night lights of Matera, try to get an outdoor table on the balcony at Ristorante Il Terrazzino. Our meal was as magical as the ambience. Of course our pasta dish was delicious but it was the mouth-watering variety of our side dishes (contorni) that is still etched into my taste buds. A creamy fava bean puree with sautéed chicory and fried peppers. Buonissimo.
Puglia – a plant based paradise.
Another reason to go south is for the oil. Olives grow in abundance, particularly in the Puglia region, where groves have stood for years. The old gnarly olive trees cross the countryside and spread all the way to the sea. Unlike the northern region, with a larger production of butter and dairy, the southerners have this liquid gold in abundance.
The Puglia region dishes up its iconic orecchiette (‘little ears’) pasta. One balmy night in Ostuni (the town aptly nick-named ‘The White City’ due to its limestone white washed buildings) I had one of my most memorable meals of my trip. In the rabbit warren of alleyways, we found the restaurant, Rifugio Dei Templari. I ordered Orecchiette Cime di Rapa, pasta with broccoli type greens, infused with loads of garlic.
These vegan experiences are only the tip of the iceberg, or should I say, the ankle of the boot. So go visit Italy, particularly the south and allow yourself to get caught up in the romance of feasting. You won’t miss out. Italian cuisine goes far beyond just meat and cheese.