Having recently spent some time exploring the Mediterranean Diet and its myths and health benefits, I was looking forward to spending some time in Italy and experiencing the Mediterranean Diet first hand. Sadly, the aspects of the Mediterranean Diet that I was most looking forward to (fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains) represented the minority of the food options at most traditional Italian restaurants.
I can’t speak to what the locals eat at home day-to-day, but the restaurant scene, especially in Italy’s smaller cities and towns, was more challenging to navigate than I anticipated. Here’s why:
- The traditional Italian breakfast consists of an espresso and a pastry. Breakfast is often consumed with gusto while standing at the counter in a café or pastry shop. This caffeine, refined sugar, and fat oriented breakfast doesn’t exactly land in the nutrient-rich category, but this seems to be the Italian way to kick-start the day.
- As for lunch and dinner, most casual cafés in Italy’s smaller towns offer a four-part menu consisting of sandwiches, salads, pastas, and pizzas. Mid-range and higher end restaurants offer these same categories (minus the sandwiches) along with a few other traditional appetizers such as prosciutto and melon along with main courses centered on red meat, pork, and seafood. Most non-meat main courses rely on pasta and cheese.
- This leaves most vegans with a choice of salads, pizzas, and pasta dishes sans fromage, though there is a small caveat. Traditional Italian pastas are likely to contain egg, but regardless of the pasta’s egg status, pasta isn’t exactly the most nutrient-rich food as it’s usually made with refined white flour. A non-cheese, veggie-loaded pizza is certainly a viable vegan option, though pizza dough is just another form of pasta: more refined carbohydrates.
So how is a healthy vegan traveler supposed to thrive in Italy? Here are a few quick tips:
- If breakfast is included in your accommodation, ask in advance if the kitchen can provide plant-based milk. All of our accommodations were more than happy to provide us with non-GMO soy milk. Most B&B and hotel breakfasts will offer plenty of fresh fruit and if you’re lucky, you might be able to kick off your day with some fresh veggies, too.
- Better yet, consider staying in an accommodation where you’ll have access to a kitchen. Head to the local market, pick up some fresh produce and prepare your meals at home. You’ll have no trouble finding high quality produce at a reasonable price. Just remember that most Italian produce vendors don’t allow customers to handle the fruit; they will pick out and weigh everything for you.
- Restaurants aren’t always so keen on modifying menu items, but you can usually omit meat and cheese. You might get some funny looks about eliminating meat, but omitting cheese seems more commonplace in Italy these days.
- Given the increasing demand for gluten-free foods, many restaurants are starting to offer buckwheat pasta, or pizzoccheri, as it’s called in Italy. While the traditional pizzoccheri dish incorporates swiss chard and boiled potatoes, it’s also layered with Valtellina Casera cheese and ground Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano. On a few occasions we tried to order this dish without cheese, but the restaurants weren’t able to accommodate our request.
- While you might be looking for more than just a salad, if you’re not finding vegan alternatives on the regular menu, all restaurants will have at the very least a simple mixed salad with fresh greens, corn, shredded carrot, cucumber, cabbage, and sliced tomato. Check out the side dishes and consider supplementing your salad with roasted vegetables, boiled potatoes or steamed spinach.
I’m hopeful that Italian cuisine in actuality consists of more than just heavy pasta dishes, white bread, cheese, seafood, and meat, but I will admit that my experiences in Italy’s restaurants has led me to believe otherwise. Over the next month, we will be traveling throughout Greece, Croatia, Spain and Turkey. I’m looking forward to experiencing first hand how these other countries approach the Mediterranean Diet. I’ll be sure to keep you posted!