Updated: Dec 10, 2019
A round-up of 'accidentally' vegan Italian dishes that you probably haven't heard of but should really get acquainted with. Be sure to try these 10 regional dishes during your Italian holiday.
It may be no surprise to you that Italian cuisine has a plethora of traditional vegan dishes. In a country that is largely focused on fresh vegetables, beans, legumes and carbs such as pasta, pizza and bread – there’s no shortage of feasting opportunities for the vegan.
On my most recent trip to Italy, more flavours, dishes and ingredients were revealed to me as I travelled from north to south. Instead of sharing with you the more obvious vegan options, such as, spaghetti aglio e olio, pizza marinara or gelato al limone – I thought I’d take you a little deeper into some regional classics you may never have heard of.
1. FARINATA AND CECINA
They call it ‘Farinata’ in the Piedmont region and ‘Cecina’ in Tuscany. No doubt each region claims important differences in each dish, but for the most part, both of these pizza-flat breads are made from chickpea flour (farina di ceci) water and oil. They're baked at piping hot temperatures and are one of the most delicious gluten free vegan savoury snacks in Italy. Many a pizzeria in the north will have Farinata or Cecina on the menu, often enjoyed as a starter. I beg you to order two.
2. AMARO & BICERIN LIQUEUR
Don’t forget the booze my friends. The bitter digestive deserves an honourable mention. Why? This post-dinner drink is vegan. There’s the classic Torinese bitter San Simone or the herbal drink of Lucca, Biadina, a liqueur with a long history, which must be drunk from a glass with a few pine nuts at the bottom. If you happen to be in Turin, and love a creamy rich liqueur, make sure you grab a bottle of the ‘Original’ Bicerin di Gianduiotto – a combination of cocoa, sugar, hazelnuts and vegetable based cream. You won’t need dessert when you’re sipping a glass of this.
3. PAPPA AL POMODORO
This rustic soup is as humble and waste-not-want-not as you can get. We could learn a thing or two about minimising our food waste from the Italians in the Tuscan region. I first locked lips with the tomato bread soup in Lucca, after my husband ordered it and I had food envy (a common tale of woe). Pappa al Pomodoro is traditionally made with stale leftover bread and is added to ripe flavourful tomatoes to create a thick cosy soup. When made seasonally with the best tomatoes and richest basil, you’ve got yourself a gift from summer.
To truly appreciate an ingredient or dish, sometimes it needs to be a little hard to get. No, I’m not talking about truffles. I’m referring to our seasonal friend, the artichoke or ‘carciofo’. Fresh artichokes are unapologetically ready when they’re ready, which is mostly in spring. And also some in autumn. If you find yourself eating carciofi outside of these seasons, it’s probably not fresh. Or at least local. But then again, with climate change, there’s exceptions to this rule. The Romans have 2 truly miraculous artichoke dishes, both simple, but worth the hype. Let’s start with Carciofi alla Romana (Roman-style artichokes) – a spring dish that is served in both homes and restaurants. This dish shows off the artichoke in all her gorgeous splendour by gently poaching in water with oil, garlic, onion, herbs and occasionally a splash of wine. The result is a tender vegetable that is served sitting in a shallow bath of its own flavourful juices. If you’re picking up on a little excitement here, please know that artichokes are also known for their aphrodisiac qualities. Mmmmm.
The other iconic Roman artichoke dish is Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style artichokes) - a creation from the Jewish community of Rome. I bet you didn’t realise how cultural your artichoke experience could be. This dish is about as contrasting to Carciofi alla Romana as you can get. This crunchy baby is deep fried and emerges from a bubbling cauldron of oil resembling something of a dead dried flower. Or some alien creature. But don’t let this put you off. This is a true Roman experience. And a vegan one. You’ll find they mostly fry the artichoke with a vegetable based oil, so you’ll be all right (if in doubt, ask, or peek over the counter and spy on what oil they’re using). Pick off the outer leaves and eat them like potato crisps, until you get to the inner choke where you’ll have a juicy happy ending. Phew, it’s getting hot in here.
SOUTHERN ITALY 5. STRACCETTI DI PIZZA FRITTA
Let’s bypass the ever-popular and satisfying Pizza Marinara this time and celebrate the other bits and pieces that can be created from pizza dough. You’ll commonly find straccetti or ‘little rags’ in Naples, strips of fried pizza dough, often served with fresh tomatoes and rocket for a rather unique appetiser or salad. As we sat down at a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, in the scruffy centre of old Naples, I ordered this intriguing dish to whet our appetite before we tucked into our 2 pizzas for mains. Imagine this: fried dough fritters for starters, wood fired pizza dough to follow. There was a whole lot of dough going on in our tummies that night. No regrets. This is a unique dish worth adding to your vegan Italian bucket list.
Ditch the gelato and order the granita. A more refreshing and unadulterated frozen dessert than gelato and more likely to be vegan. And if you’re in Sicily, where it’s stifling hot in summer, it’s perfectly acceptable to order a granita for breakfast. At its simplest, granita is made with water, sugar and fruit. Or coffee or nuts. Occasionally you may find dairy added to some granita flavours, such as chocolate, but if you stick with fruit, you’ll be fine. And if it’s seasonal fruit (which it usually is, because that’s how Italian’s roll) then you’re in for a flavour-bursting treat. In Taormina, my peach granita was like eating a ripe peach straight off the tree, with tiny flecks of peach woven into the ice. Don’t leave Sicily without experiencing a coffee and almond granita. As your sweaty skin sticks to plastic seats, you’ll appreciate swapping your hot morning coffee for an iced version. And if you leave it too long in the early morning heat, you’ll find it melts into liquid form anyway. For a bit of fun, also try an ice cold almond milk (latte di mandorla) often made with a almond milk syrup. It’s heaven and unlike any almond milk you’ve ever tried.
7. PISTACHIO PESTO
Condiments always deserve a special mention. Sicily is the land of pistachios so you’ll find a plethora of pistachio-related products wherever you go: nuts, pesto, cream, liqueur, biscotti, oil, sweets and gelato. I opted for a jar of pesto, which happened to be vegan. Pop open the jar and be ready for the intensity of flavour, all buttery and thick from the natural oils. This isn’t your common basil and pine nut variety pesto - it may take a few licks to adjust to the richness. And once you do, you’ll find it hard not to return for a bit more. And then a little bit more again. We stirred this green treasure through a salad of Sicilian sun dried tomatoes and capers. Another way to highlight the pesto is to spread onto crackers and bread, or stir through pasta and risotto.
8. PANE E PANELLE
Another Sicilian vegan offering is the street food snack, Pane e Panelle, which is more predominately found in Palermo. This deep fried chickpea flour fritter gets whacked inside a bread roll and woofed down nice and hot. There shouldn’t be anything non-vegan about this, so get bold and find yourself a street seller, who will give you the real deal. If you’re not feeling so confident (and it’s okay to feel a bit shy when it comes to ordering from a Sicilian in the suffocating heat of the day) – pop into a store, like Ke Palle, where a ‘vegan’ sign kindly beckons you forward. Add a potato crocchè for the ultimate snack.
You’ll find these crunchy snacks all over Italy, from more specialised gourmet stores, to the humble supermarket. Taralli are savoury ring-shaped baked biscuits made with flour and water and then seasoned with classic flavours, such as fennel seeds. Don’t be shy to try other flavours too, ‘pizza gusto’ will have you digging into the pack for more and questioning why you can’t enjoy these back home in your own country (potato chips are sooo 2018). If you happen to visit the gorgeous Puglian town of Lecce, you’ll find entire stores dedicated taralli or tarallini, mini versions of the biscuit. At La Casa del Tarallino (The House of Tarallino) you’ll be in snack heaven. Most of the flavours will be vegan, but watch out for the occasional flavour with dairy or anchovies (acciuga). Buy your favourite flavours in bulk and smuggle your stash back to your apartment and enjoy as the perfect pre-dinner aperitivo snack, with a couple of glasses of red wine.
10. SAGNE TORTE
There’s something fascinating about the myriad of pasta shapes that exist from region to region. There is an alchemical process of turning flour and water into great food art and these various pasta shapes are often relics of a bygone era, an artefact of a town’s culture and history. After plunging my hands into a pile of local Puglian durum wheat semolina at a pasta making class in Lecce, I discovered how easily and creatively a chunk of dough can be turned into the most unique shape, Sagne Torte. Our knowledgeable teacher, Matilde from The Real Apulian cooking class, learned all the secrets from her nonna, how to knead, shape and roll the pasta of her region. Sagne torte are transformed from a long strip of dough by twirling it by hand into something resembling a twisted fettuccine. The ends of the sagne torte strand are often pinched and joined together into a long loop. These are best served with a simple tomato sugo clinging to the twisty-turny long strands.
BONUS EXTRA! CAFÉ LECCESE
If you’re in Lecce, order a Café Leccese, especially in the warmer months. This traditional drink of Lecce is a refreshing coffee made with a layer of espresso and sweet almond milk syrup, enjoyed over a few large cubes of ice. A great alternative to a hot coffee.
I hope you enjoy adding these dishes to your food bucket list next time you're in Italy. And then go onto discover the many more 'accidentally' vegan offerings that didn't quite make it to this Top 10 list.