I’ll never get tired of saying it: you can’t really appreciate a trip to Italy without properly tasting its food.
Food is such a big part of Italian culture that you can’t say you have really seen Italy if you came here and just ate hamburgers and fries. No matter if you are interested only in art or history, if you just want to enjoy the scenery or if you come to Italy to learn the language, food must be part of the experience. As I wrote in an old post, there are some food experiences you absolutely must not miss – if you want to live Italy and its culture at their best.
I do believe that enjoying the local food is really important wherever you go. However, depending on the country you visit, things can be a bit difficult if you are a vegetarian. I do not eat meat and sometimes I have to skip many traditional dishes because of that. But you won’t have this kind of problems, here in Italy.
The Italian food tradition is so rich and diverse that you can find endless options for vegetarians.
To give you an idea of this richness and diversity, I decided to list some of the most important Italian dishes which are vegetarian as well. As you will see, there are plenty of options in more or less every region, from north to south. Since I live in Liguria, I am a bit partial to it and my selection includes some traditional dishes of my region – whose cuisine is actually amazing, to tell the truth.
But let’s see what are some of the best Italian dishes which you can enjoy if you are a vegetarian.
Let’s start with the queen of the Italian cuisine. You have a lot of choices if you are a vegetarian, and you can never go wrong. You can choose the simple marinara, with just tomato sauce, garlic, and oregano or the super classic pizza margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil for a trip to paradise), which you can also find in its bufala version, with buffalo mozzarella. If you especially like cheese, you can go for pizza ai quattro formaggi (four-cheese pizza) or if you need your vegetables fix, choose pizza ortolana, usually made with grilled vegetables. Never worry if you see peperoni on the menu: it means peppers in Italian!
Another classic, another wide range of vegetarian options. Almost every region has its own traditional pasta recipe and many of them are vegetarian. You can have pasta al pesto, which is typical of Liguria, and it’s just pasta with an amazing basil sauce. Another option is tortelli di zucca, pasta stuffed with a pumpkin filling and served with melted butter, which you can find mainly in Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna. In Rome, you won’t be able to taste carbonara or amatriciana, but you can compensate with heaps of pasta cacio e pepe, pasta with cacio cheese and pepper. If you move further south, you can try spaghetti alla puttanesca (spaghetti with tomato sauce, olives, capers and oregano), if you go to Naples, or pasta alla norma (pasta with fried aubergines), if you go to Sicily. But honestly, options are endless.
Let’s dive deep into the tradition of my own region now. One of the staples of our food culture, here in Liguria, is focaccia, a flat bread which is baked in the oven and seasoned with just olive oil and salt. We love it so much we even dunk it in our cappuccino at breakfast. Focaccia can also be alle cipolle (with onions), alle olive (with olives), al formaggio (with cheese), or al rosmarino (with rosemary) – just to name a few versions. There is a very special version as well, called focaccia al formaggio di Recco, which is a super thin layer of focaccia filled with melted cheese. Heavenly. You can find focaccia elsewhere in Italy too – in Rome, for example, they call it pizza bianca – but we claim that our focaccia is absolutely the best. And it is.
Let’s stay in my region for a while more and talk about farinata, a very thin kind of pancake made with chickpea flour and seasoned with rosemary. Farinata is great because it is really tasty and it is gluten-free as well: who could ask for more? Chickpea flour is the basis of another typical dish of my region, called panissa, which is boiled chickpea dough. Once ready, it can be eaten with onions and pepper or cut into lozenges and deep fried. A panino with deep fried panissa is a typical street food option, here where I live.
5. Pappa al pomodoro
One of the most typical dishes of Tuscany, pappa al pomodoro, is a great vegetarian dish. Pappa al pomodoro is a soup made with tomatoes, stale bread, basil, and oil. As for many Italian dishes, it is incredibly simple and tasty at the same time. Actually, Tuscany, which is the region of great meat dishes, offers many vegetarian options. In the summertime, you can have panzanella, a salad of bread and tomatoes, sometimes with onions and olives. In wintertime, you can try ribollita, a hearty soup with leftover bread, beans, chard, kale, and onions.
6. Melanzane alla parmigiana
Aubergines are the main ingredients of melanzane alla parmigiana, a traditional recipe of the south of Italy, Sicily in particular, which can luckily be found most everywhere in the country. Layers of fried aubergines, mozzarella, and tomato sauce make this dish something that can’t absolutely be missed – when in Italy.
Typical of Puglia, friselle are quintessentially Italian and incredibly summery. Ring-shaped with a hole in the middle, they are made with durum wheat flour, baked twice and usually have a rough and a smooth side. Traditionally they are first soaked in a bit of water – they say soaking it into sea water just makes it perfect – and then seasoned with garlic, fresh tomatoes, and olive oil. They are a bit like bruschetta and are perfect for a quick snack or a summer lunch on the beach.
Most of the dishes listed above are best when enjoyed during the summer, but there are some great wintery vegetarian dishes. One of these, typical of the north of Italy, is polenta. Polenta is a basically boiled cornmeal, which can be eaten warm – as a sort of porridge – or cool and solidified into a loaf, which can then be baked, grilled or fried. If eaten warm, polenta can be accompanied with just oil, melted cheese, or mushrooms. Paired with a hearty red wine, it is an amazing dish to be had on a snowy and cold winter day.
Another great vegetarian dish, which you can taste if you come to Italy in the winter – maybe for a holiday in the Alps – is fonduta. As the name implies, it is melted cheese (fondere means to melt) traditionally prepared using Fontina cheese and served with cubes of toasted bread. Fonduta can be found everywhere in the north of Italy, but it has its origins in Valle d’Aosta – the region where Mont Blanc is – and Piemonte. Once again, a glass of red wine and a bowl of fonduta will make you forget the cold in winter.
Let’s end this list of vegetarian dishes with a staple of the Italian cooking tradition: risotto, a northern Italian dish where rice is cooked in broth until it reaches a creamy consistency. Since sometimes meat broth can also be used, make sure to ask your waiter about that if you are in a restaurant. Apart from the use of broth (which most of the times is vegetable one), there are many vegetarian options when choosing risotto: they can be risotto al barolo, with barolo wine, risotto agli asparagi, with asparagus, risotto alla zucca, with pumpkin, or risotto ai funghi, with mushrooms – just to name a few.
What is your favorite Italian vegetarian dish? And why? Let me know in the comments below, I am curious!
If you are interested in learning more about Italian culture and lifestyle, I’d suggest you jump on my digital Vespa and join Be Italian For A Month, your 30-day virtual journey to Italy.
You will also learn some Italian words, you’ll receive some typical Italian recipes – ready to be cooked and enjoyed, you’ll get to tour around Italy, and learn about Italian traditions, proverbs, stereotypes, you name it. Plus, some cute surprises along the way!