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Even though more restaurants these days are beginning to cater to a wider constituency of diets, sometimes dining out can still feel extremely hit-or-miss for those of us with particular dietary restrictions. Some cuisines are notorious for their heavy use of meat and dairy, making it difficult to dine out if you’re trying to eat more plant-based foods. Italian restaurants, in particular, can be daunting establishments to visit if you aren’t familiar with all the different options available to you — and that’s where we come in.
For many people in America, the words “Italian food” conjures images of cheesy pizzas, creamy pasta sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, and plenty of meaty bolognese and lasagnas. While you can certainly recreate any of those meals out of entirely plant-based ingredients at home, if you’re not dining at a vegan restaurant, you’re not likely going to be able to order those meals when you’re dining out — but don’t let that stop you from enjoying your dinner out at an Italian restaurant! We’ve put together a helpful go-to guide to help you order satisfying, well-rounded, and tasty plant-based dishes at Italian restaurants.
If you’ve been avoiding the appetizer section at Italian restaurants because you figured it was full of cured meats and cheese platters, you’ve been missing out on some very common plant-based options.
Most Italian options offer olives, or at the very least will allow you to order bread with olive oil. If you’re opting for the latter, make sure your bread hasn’t been brushed with butter.
A popular plant-based appetizer you could try is Bruschetta al pomodoro, or tomato bruschetta, which is essentially a diced tomato topping on top of a piece of crispy bread. While this dish is traditionally vegan-friendly, some establishments might brush their crispy toasts with butter or toss some cheese into their bruschetta, so specify that you want it without any dairy. If you’re interested in making some fun variations at home, we recommend this Polenta Bruschetta and this herbaceous Mushroom Pesto Bruschetta.
Artichokes are full of antioxidants and dietary fiber, so look out for carciofo alla romana, or marinated/grilled artichokes, when you’re ready to order. As long as your artichoke isn’t marinated with butter, you’re all set to order. We recommend this recipe for Lemon-Roasted Artichoke With Garlic and Fennel if you want to try citrusy variation on the dish.
Many of the soups and bean dishes in Italian cuisine are plant-based.
Minestra di verdure, or Minestrone Soup, is an often meat-free, tomato-based soup that features an assortment of beans, onions, celery, carrots, and other veggies, often with the addition of pasta or rice. Tomatoes are a great source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to helping reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Bean soups are prevalent on Italian menus as well. Beans are healthy carbohydrates that don’t spike our blood sugar, and they also have a large amount of B vitamins and iron for energy. Check out this Easy Italian Wedding Soup With White Bean Balls if you’re interested in making your own version at home.
Caponata is a Sicilian eggplant dish that usually also features tomatoes, olives, onions, and capers fried in olive oil. Some restaurants will list it under appetizers, and some will list it under entrées, so hunt around until you find it. Craving it right now? Try out this recipe for Caponata: Eggplant Stew With Hummus.
If you’re down to make a meal out of a few sides, look for grilled vegetables, or verdure grigliate. While vegetables on their own may sound like a boring or bland option, just remember that vegetables are extremely adaptable. Here are 10 Vegetables You Can Make Burgers With, for example, and 10 Vegetables That Can Substitute for Meat. You can also learn how to expertly prepare your own vegetables with this Ultimate Guide to Grilling Veggies.
You can always rely on pasta al pomodoro e basilico, which is pasta with tomato sauce and basil, or look out for pasta aglio e olio, which translates to pasta with hot pepper and garlic. Pasta alla puttanesca is also on most menus (although you will have to hold the anchovies) and so is pasta alla norma, which is a traditional Sicilian pasta dish that features eggplant, but you will have to order it without cheese. If you’re lucky, there will be even more vegan pasta options, such as pasta e ceci, which means pasta with chickpeas. Just as long as you make sure the pasta you order was not made with eggs, you’re good to go! For a simple (but delicious) recipe, try out this Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce.
Additionally, pizza rossa, or pizza with tomato sauce and herbs, is usually available on request. If you don’t feel like pizza is complete without toppings, then skip the cheese and load up on vegetables instead. If you’re interested in an example of a veggie-heavy pizza, check out this recipe for a Rainbow Veggie Hummus Pizza With Everything Bagel Crust.
For more ideas of what to eat at specific locations, here’s a guide for 20 Meatless and All-Vegan Options You Can Find at Popular Fast Food Chains. If you’re in the mood for pizza after reading so much about Italian food, keep an eye out for one of these Vegan Pizzerias in America.
Interested in finding more vegan recipes? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 8,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Lentil Pizza Crust