10 of the best vegan Italian dishes

10 of the best vegan Italian dishes

by Caterina Violi 08 January 2016

Veganism is a growing movement in Italy, but following a diet free from animal products doesn't mean giving up the classics. Caterina Violi looks at ten traditional Italian dishes which are suitable for vegans.

Caterina is a food lover, researcher and freelance journalist from Parma. When she is not writing, she teaches Capoeira in Maremma, Tuscany.

Caterina is a food lover, researcher and freelance journalist from Parma. When she is not writing, she teaches Capoeira in Maremma, Tuscany.

Talk to Italians about vegan cuisine and you’ll be faced with a real divide. There are those who wholeheartedly embrace the philosophy of a diet free from animal products and those who won’t as a matter of principle and think of veganism as pure blasphemy.

In a country where food has always been a unifying element, such a split in opinion is almost unheard of. With the number of vegans increasing in the country (there are an estimated 400,000-700,000 in Italy, growing ten to fifteen percent year-on-year according to official statistics), the divide shows no signs of dwindling. But is it true that veganism is completely at odds with Italian culinary tradition? Or are the food fundamentalists ignoring the home-grown facts?

Perhaps the answer lies in the abundance of healthy and natural ingredients that come from the land, arguably one of the greatest assets of the country. In addition, the longstanding heritage of cucina povera, the humble cuisine of the poorer classes, features an impressive range of recipes free from meat, fish and dairy. So Italians do not actually need to look much beyond their own culinary history if they do decide to go vegan.

Not convinced? Here’s a run-down of ten traditional vegan Italian dishes that are guaranteed to make everyone’s mouth water.

The dishes

1. Caponata

Originally from Sicily, caponata is a mixture of lightly fried aubergines dressed in a sweet and sour sauce of tomatoes, onions, celery, olives and caper berries. Although the original dish, which featured heavily on the tables of the Sicilian aristocracy in the eighteenth century, was made with cappone (the Sicilian name for the mahi-mahi fish), aubergines came to substitute this expensive ingredient when it reached the tables of poorer households. Sicily counts thirty-seven different recipes for caponata and every town boasts its own ‘classic’ version. Extra garnishes include toasted almonds, raisins or a dash of cocoa from the town of Modica.

2. Panelle Palermitane

These half moon-shaped fritters made of chickpea flour, parsley and cracked black pepper are a classic of the street food scene of Palermo, in northern Sicily. Found in every friggitorìa (fried food stand) in the city, they often come drizzled in lemon juice and are served in soft sesame seed bread rolls called mafalde.

3. Pappa al pomodoro

A classic of Tuscany’s peasant culinary tradition, the pappa al pomodoro was brought back into the Italian collective memory by Vamba, a nineteenth century Florentine writer and journalist in his novel Il Diario di Gianburrasca. It is a dense soup made of tomatoes and unsalted Tuscan bread, cooked in extra virgin olive oil and odori (basil, garlic, salt, pepper). It can be served either warm or at room temperature, drizzled in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with fresh basil leaves. Purists will tell you that a sprinkle of grated cheese is not permitted in the original recipe.

4. Ribollita Toscana

Like the pappa al pomodoro, the ribollita also stems from the culinary tradition of the peasant class in Tuscany. Meaning ‘boiled again’ in Italian, it used to be made on a Friday with leftover vegetables and stale bread. For a soup to be called a ribollita, three key ingredients need to be part of the mix – cannellini beans, savoy cabbage and cavolo nero. Other vegetables can include carrots, tomatoes, Swiss chard, potatoes, onions, leeks and celery cooked in plenty of olive oil and rosemary. Being a hearty dish, ribollita is usually served in the autumn and winter.

Focaccia Ligure
Focaccia Ligure is a simple yet delicious flatbread
Farinata di ceci is another of Liguria's famous flatbreads

5. Focaccia Ligure

This is the mother of all focaccias, often referred to as fugassa in the Ligurian dialect. Made of flour and yeast, this flatbread is no more than a couple of centimetres thick, crispy on the outside with a soft and fragrant crumb on the inside. Typically, the dough is left to rise overnight and the surface anointed with copious amounts of olive oil and coarse sea salt, which give focaccia its characteristic shine and crunch. Its ‘purest’ version is found in Genova and in the towns and villages along the coast. A staple of the dock workers’ diet but also, for Ligurians, a favourite breakfast item or mid morning snack, often accompanied by a glass of crisp white wine.

6. Farinata di ceci

Made from a mix of chickpea flour, water, salt and extra virgin olive oil, farinata is, alongside focaccia, one of Liguria’s most celebrated snacks. This thin, golden-coloured disc has the creamy consistency of a pancake and the flavour of the sea packed in the light saltiness of its thin crust. It is said to have first come about by accident in 1284 during the battle of Meloria between the rival cities of Genova and Pisa where barrels of olive oil and chickpea flour were spilled into the sea and the mixture was salvaged by being dried in the sun. Today you will find it roughly sliced, served with no frills but plenty of taste in many pizzerias and focaccerias of the region.

7. Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino

With so few elements to the recipe, the key is in the quality of the ingredients and the precision of the process.

Caterina Violi

This dish is one that is found on the table of many families in Italy, where garlic, olive oil and red chilli rarely go amiss. The original recipe is from Naples, where its name is often pronounced by locals in one single breath. Its ancestor is the vermicelli alla Borbonica, a dish served at the Borbone court, rulers of the city in the eighteenth century. With so few elements to the recipe, the key is in the quality of the ingredients and the precision of the process. Finely chopped garlic and fresh red chilli are fried in extra virgin olive oil until golden. The garlic is then removed and the mixture is folded into a long variety of pasta (such as spaghetti, linguine or vermicelli).

8. Pane carasau

A paper-thin, twice-baked flat bread. It is a specialty of the Barbagia region in Sardinia and can be made from durum wheat (the prerogative of wealthy families in the old days) or humbler alternatives such as barley flour mixed with water, salt and yeast. Its name comes from the Sardinian word carasare (to toast) but locals often refer to it as carta da musica (music paper), not only for its lightness and delicate texture but also for the distinctive noise made by those who eat it. Best enjoyed warm with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

This simple dish of spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and chilli is the perfect example of the Italians' love of good ingredients
Pane carasau
This Sicilian flatbread is also known as 'music paper'

9. Carciofi alla Giudìa

One of the most well known dishes of Roman cuisine, it has its roots in the capital’s Jewish quarter. Its key ingredient is the the Romanesco artichoke, a perfectly round, thorn-free, purple streaked variety from the coastal region of Lazio between the towns of Ladispoli and Civitavecchia. Deep fried in olive oil, salt and lemon, its leaves are left crisp and the hearts tender. With its delicious crunch, golden colour and distinctive, nutty flavour, it is served as a starter or side dish in restaurants and eateries around the Roman Jewish quarter, mostly in the spring.

10. Pattona

A traditional dish from the northern and central Italian Apennines made of chestnut flour, olive oil, salt and water. Although today pattona is mainly thought of as a dessert course or a sweet snack, in the past it featured heavily in the local diet of this mountainous area as a main dish. There are many regional varieties of the dish but the version from Emilia Romagna is no more than a centimetre thick, compact and dense-looking but soft and creamy to the bite. Pattona is an autumnal speciality, revered in every Castagnata (autumn chestnut fair) of the region.