When I proposed the category of Best Italian Restaurant for the 2013 VegCharlotte Awards, I had some unusual responses.
One person wrote, “The sound you hear is that of crickets chirping.”
Another person was even more blunt. “There is no such thing as vegan Italian food.”
That’s a common attitude among Charlotte, NC vegans, which is a shame, because when I first went veg, Italian dishes were one on the first things I learned to cook. (Having an Italian boyfriend at the time may also have had something to do with it!)
Let’s see, I made pasta with puttanesca sauce, marinara sauce, fra diavalo sauce. Pasta primavera with vegetables and a light coating of garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs. Crispy bruschetta topped with summer tomatoes and basil grown from pots on my windowsill. White bean spreads and dips. Cannellini beans with sauteed spinach or kale. Polenta – Italy’s version of the grits I’d been eating all my life. Steaming bowls of minestrone and pasta e fagioli soup. Warm, crunchy bread sticks brushed with garlic, olive oil, and salt. Cute little potato gnocchis. Emerald green pestos (yes, that’s right, many traditional pesto recipes do not have parmesan cheese). Risotto with its creamy-firm texture.
Italian food was my introduction to grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, capers, and artichokes.
I also learned how to cook with wine (tomato sauces often have red wine; risottos make use of white wine). The secret? Never use a wine you wouldn’t drink.
I also wasn’t quite vegan at the time and learned that using very small amounts of really good cheese, instead of large amounts of cheap cheese, is hugely more satisfying. Vegetarians, if you are trying to cut down on your cheese intake, give that trick a try. For example, try an insalata caprese with freshly made, top quality mozzarella cheese, and the nasty, cheap, greasy mozzarella used on pizzas and loaded on pastas at chain restaurants will never taste the same to you!
The items I listed are just the traditional ones. Tweak the recipes a little and you have more options. You could use vegan cheese, for example, or leave the cheese out altogether – did you know that many Italian pizzas are traditionally cheeseless, or have only a light dusting of Parmesan cheese? An overload of gooey mozzarella on a pizza is mostly an American invention. Or you can use vegan crumbles, vegan sausage, or vegan chicken in place of meat – an easy substitution.
Now, I’m not expecting a Charlotte restaurant to serve spaghetti bolognese with vegan sausage, but it does seem like there should be some Italian restaurants serving a bit more of the traditional vegan and vegetarian items.
Now that I’ve made myself very, very hungry, here are a few tips on dining out, gleaned from my own experience as a vegan in Charlotte:
- Moderately priced Italian restaurants tend to have more options for vegetarians and vegans on their menu. The more expensive a restaurant is, the higher the proportion of meat items to vegetarian and vegan items.
- However, the more expensive Italian restaurants are almost always willing to cook a special dish for you. In fact, ANY Italian restaurant should at least be able to whip up a decent vegan pasta for you.
- The general fear is that pasta sauces contain chicken or beef broth. However, in my own personal experience I’ve found the most common danger is dairy (usually butter, sometimes cheese) added to sauces you wouldn’t expect dairy to be in – tomato sauces such as marinara, pomodoro, or diavalo sauce.
- To ferret out hidden dairy, instead of telling your server you are vegan, tell your server you are allergic to dairy. He or she will suddenly take your requests much more seriously.
- If you are vegan or a vegetarian who doesn’t eat eggs, be aware that eggs are usually (but not always) used for the breading on fried items (eggplant parmesan, fried zucchini, etc.) “String” pastas – spaghetti, angel hair, linguine, ziti, etc. – are usually egg-free, but lasagna noodles, ravioli, and gnochhi may not be. If your server isn’t sure, ask if the pasta is fresh or dried – fresh pasta usually has eggs, dried usually doesn’t. Finally, some alfredo sauces contain eggs.
- A common assumption is that all pesto sauces contain cheese – but some don’t. Ask and you may have a happy surprise.
- Safest choices for vegans are usually bruschetta, salads without cheese (if you have any doubts about the dressing they can usually provide little cruets of oil and vinegar), and string pastas tossed with garlic and olive oil or a meatless red sauce. If they offer a pasta primavara (usually with alfredo sauce) or pizzas, you can ask they add extra vegetables to your pasta. And check out the side items and antipasto – the restaurant may offer grilled vegetables, roasted red peppers, spinach or other vegetables sauteed in garlic and olive oil, roasted red peppers, or olives. Sometimes these can create an interesting meal.
- If you travel, check out the menus for Italian restaurants in larger cities. Many have a special “vegan” section.
- And, finally, if you are a “flexaterian” or someone who’s just starting to test a vegetarian or vegan diet part-time, be aware that – especially in more expensive restaurants – “meat sauce” may very well include veal.
Tomorrow: The Best Italian Restaurants in Charlotte, NC for Vegetarians/Vegans
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