It has been a dream of mine to travel to Italy and eat the food I love the most, made from authentic and not imported ingredients. And my wish was granted in the form of a ten day trip through three cities. If we had more time (and money) we could have disappeared in Italy.
Before going I was scared. Knowing the love for cheese and meat the Italians have, what will a vegan eat? I was even more scared when I saw the shock on the face of a good friend - an Italian restaurateur as I told him about my predicament. But thanks to the internet and thanks to a significant number of lactose intolerant Italians, I must admit, I ate much more than I had prepared for.
Rome is overwhelming. The city reminds me of New York with its small buildings and busy people. The subway system is as confusing as it is if you are travelling through the New York subway for the first time. The only difference architecturally is the grandeur of the Roman Empire and how some parts of the city have just stopped in time. It's a city full of tourists, touts and tour guides.
I must've spent all my free time at home looking up vegan brands in Italy and one name stood out on a few websites - Valsoia. Valsoia is a company that makes everything out of Soia (Soya). They are an Italian based company that makes everything from Soy Milk to Ice Creams to Yogurts out of Soy. The first thing I did when I entered the supermarket in Rome was to head straight to the freezer section. And there it was staring back at me - Soya Ice cream in many different varieties (Cornetto, Ice cream sandwiches, Sticks...). I wanted to take them all! Of course I tried as much as I could and they were great. But since I was in Italy, what interested me more was Gelati. Again with Gelati, there isn't much information out there about what to expect when you go to a Gelateria. The internet gave me a few places in Rome and Venice that had Soy and Rice milk based Gelatis. I was wrong, I underestimated the Italians!
Averaging anywhere from 4 to 6 Gelatis in a day, we devoured every Gelati. Rome is full of
Gelaterias, even if it's a hole in the wall they will put up a freezer and sell it under the guise of a Gelaterie Artigianale. The prices range from €2 t0 €6 depending on the size, cup or waffle cone and flavours. Since we went in June it was summer, all the berries were in season. Frulatis (gelatis made with fruit, ice and sugar) were almost always vegan. The attendants at the stores knew if they had milk or not. Many were even without sugar. They melt in your mouth, the flavours just stay on your tongue and give you the perfect hit. All the gelatos available in India are way too sweet but that's because we have an excessive palate. Everything is either sweet or spicy, there is no in between.
One Gelateria I found online that made soy gelatos was Gelateria Blue Ice. I'd read about it, saved the address but found this by mistake while walking back from the Vatican. I had stuffed myself with a strawberry gelati (their small serving is huge!) from another gelateria and had no inclination of giving myself a brain freeze. But I could not miss this opportunity and I am so glad I didn't. That day they had hazelnut (nocciola) made with soy milk and it was HEAVEN! Everywhere I went I tried to sample a new flavour. Over ten days, I must've eaten strawberry (fragola) the most. But my favourite was and always will be the nocciola. I can give up anything for another bite of that, anything!
Eating out wasn't trouble at all and one place was on all the vegetarian websites - Il Margutta. A vegetarian restaurant since 1979, Il Margutta is situated at the end of a narrow alley close to Rome's famous Spanish Steps (we had a bit of difficulty finding it). It's a very quaint and charming restaurant with open air and indoor seating. We chose open air, because it was a beautiful evening. In Italy many restaurants have what is called a 'cover charge'. They usually levy a €2 charge per person to cover the cost of their cutlery and table covers. Some restaurants will advertise 'No Cover Charge'. Many restaurants will also charge for water and bread. Il Margutta charged us for everything.
We went into Il Margutta mostly because it was Rome's only vegetarian restaurant that we knew of and I was hoping they would understand vegans better. They have an extensive vegetarian menu with some vegan options. They didn't have a few vegan dishes listed on the menu which I asked for, but we settled for the Risotto with Courgette flowers and a spaghetti with cherry tomatoes. The food was excellent of course, but we would've enjoyed it a little more if we hadn't stuffed ourselves all day. For dessert they had two vegan options and they were nice enough to give us a little bit of both - a carrot cake and a chocolate cake with a serving of soy gelato. The cakes were made with walnut flour and were dense, flavourful and so good! Il Margutta is a bit on the expensive side and I'd suggest eating light the day you plan to eat there. I only wish they were a little more vegan friendly.
Otherwise, I ate Pizza everyday, every single day! Turns out the Italians love their Pizzas even without cheese. Same with the pastas. All the menus had at least two Pizzas without cheese and meat. The Margharita - tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil (tell them to avoid the cheese) was on every menu. Or you can request the pizza or pasta you want without cheese. There are some Indian and Mediterranean restaurants in Rome which would probably be vegetarian friendly, but when in Rome do as the (vegan) Romans do! A very sweet lady at our hotel told us about an Indian restaurant that served very good Samosas near by. But I don't think it would be the same as the ones you get here. They never are.
Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil
There was lots to choose from, no need to starve. Almost anything that is freshly made can be altered to become vegan friendly. You only have to look out for the pastas made with eggs, squid ink pastas which are black in colour, milk and cheese. It helps to learn the key words of any language before going to a country where English is not the first language. And when I say key words I always start with food. A lot of the food in the supermarket is labeled in Italian and it really helped because I knew that 'uovo/a' is 'egg' and 'con latte' is 'with milk'. Bread and Olive oil with Balsamic vinegar is to die for and all the restaurants either greeted you with a free bread basket or asked you if you wanted some. I can eat it every single day.
A million varieties of Pasta and more
Rome is abundant and will surprise you. The food and the grandiose of the architecture will take you to the era of the Roman Empire and back. You will want to preserve every bite of what you see and eat.
Next Stop: Positano!