In my last post, I gave you tips on dining out, veggie-style, at Italian restaurants. Today, I’m sharing what veggie voters said were the best Italian restaurants in Charlotte, NC! First Place: Portofino’s. I was glad to see vegans and vegetarians voting for this one! Portofino’s is a Charlotte institution that’s been around a long, long time. I believe the first restaurant, on Eastway, opened in the mid-90’s. There are now additional restaurants at Park Road, Arboretum, and Ayrsley. The draw for vegans and vegetarians? Reasonable prices (veg entrees run about $11-$12) plus a really awesome “do it yourself” pasta option on the menu – including several options for vegans! First, choose a pasta – Cappellini (angel hair), Linguine, Fettucine, Penne, or Spaghetti. (It’s not specifically listed on the menu, but vegetarians could also choose cheese tortellini.) Then choose a sauce from a list of at least 13 options. Vegans have at least five choices:
- Pomodoro Sauce (fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil)
- Garlic & Broccoli Sauce
- Primavera (broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes in marinara)
- Puttanesca (mushrooms, tomatoes, capers, and olives in marinara sauce)
- Arrabbiate (mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, and olives in a hot and spicy tomato sauce with chili peppers – minus the prosciutto).
If there’s a combination you’d like but don’t see on the menu – say, you’d like the primavera vegetables but in a garlic/olive oil sauce, just ask! Portofino’s is all about customization. Vegetarians have a few additional sauce options:
- Alla Panna (parmesan and romano cream sauce)
- Pasta Primavera (in a cream sauce)
- Sorrento (tomatoes and garlic with fresh melted mozzarella)
Years ago Portofino’s also had an excellent vodka sauce, although it’s not on their menu now. Vegetarians can also choose from classic “baked” pastas, like manicotti, baked ziti, or eggplant parmigiana.
They also have quite good pizzas. Lacto-vegetarians can choose from tomato sauce or white sauce. They don’t offer vegan cheese for vegans, but if you happen to like cheeseless pizzas, this could also be an option.
Portofino’s wrote me: “The majority of our sauces are made right when the person orders and if you’d like to substitute something, we usually are able to accommodate the request. Please always make sure to tell your server your dietary needs each time you order to avoid any misunderstanding. We want to make sure you are always happy, your food is always delicious, and any special dietary needs are met to the best of our ability.”
In my experience, the quality of Portofino’s food has been consistently good – and that’s saying something, considering I’ve been eating at their various restaurants for 15 years.
Second Place: Mama Ricotta’s. This is also a long-time Charlotte institution that’s been around for years – probably also the mid-to-late 90’s. I enjoyed it when I ate there, and I don’t believe I ever had anything that wasn’t tasty! However, I haven’t eaten there for several years, so I’ll rely on summarizing what the VegCharlotte Voters said.
Mama Ricotta’s is heavy on vegetarian options, with a few decent options for vegans. “They have more vegetarian items than most places – and DIFFERENT vegetarian items,” said one voter.
Appetizers: Vegetarians liked the Warm Goat Cheese and Marscapone Dip – $8.50. Marscapone is similar to a really rich, Italian cream cheese. It’s topped with a “warm tomato basil sauce” and served with crostini. Another favorite – the Wild Mushroom Polenta – $8 – “wood oven roasted wild mushrooms with Marsala and fresh herbs over a creamy Marscapone polenta.” We vegans will have to content ourselves with Bruschetta – $7.25. Although, the next time I go there, I might be tempted to see if they can make the Wild Mushroom Polenta for me without the Marscapone cheese – due to my “horrible dairy allergy,” you know!
Salads: These are also winners with the voters. “I usually hate salad because that’s what I’m stuck with ordering at many restaurants, but Mama Ricotta’s salads are really good. Unusual ingredients like roasted red peppers, artichokes, pine nuts, and garbanzo beans. They also give you a lot of toppings – you’re not just sitting there eating leaves.” Here’s a couple of salads off their menu that look interesting to me:
- Sicilian Roasted Red Pepper Salad – “Sicilian-style roasted red peppers, pine nuts, and raisins tossed with mixed baby greens in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.” – $7.
- Mama’s Salad. This is apparently the house salad – “romaine, fresh vegetables, marinated artichokes, roasted red peppers, and vine-ripened tomatoes.” $3.25 with an entree; up to $13.50 for “family size.”
- Chopped Salad – “Gorgonzola cheese, romaine lettuce, walnuts, red onion, pepperoncini, garbanzo beans, and carrots tossed in a light balsamic vinaigrette dressing” – $6. Of course, if you’re vegan, ask the restaurant to omit the gorgonzola.
Pizza: “I LOVE the veggie pizza with eggplant!” This voter must be talking about the Vegetariana Pizza – “roasted zucchini, squash, bell peppers, eggplant, and mozzarella.” A 9″ medium is $11.50; a 14″ large is $17.75. Mama Ricotta’s also offers a white pizza with spinach and garlic.
Pastas: Two voters reminisced over the Butternut Squash Ravioli, which, unfortunately, has been removed from the menu. However, Ravioli Alla Forentina – “mushroom ravioli served in a fresh spinach and cream sauce”– $14 – and Penne Alla Vodka – “penne pasta tossed in a pepper vodka, spicy cream tomato sauce” – minus pancetta, of course! – $12 – are said to be awesome! Vegans can choose Pasta Primavera – “angel hair pasta tossed with seasonal vegetables and served with your choice of olive oil and garlic, or basil tomato sauce.” $11.50. Or the even simpler Angel Hair Pasta with Tomato Basil Sauce – $11.
Voters tell me Mama Ricotta’s also has a number of specials and special dinners, so it’s possible you may come across even more vegetarian or vegan options. If you absolutely CAN’T find an option that appeals to you, voters tell me the chef can often make up something special.
Finally, Vegetable Side Items. As far as I know, all of them are suitable for vegetarians (but always double-check; things can change!) The different forms of Mashed Potatoes and Polenta most likely have dairy. Sauteed Broccolini with Tomato & Garlic, Grilled Asparagus with Lemon and Garlic, Sauteed Spinach, Assorted Grilled Vegetables, and Roasted Red Peppers with Pine Nuts and Raisins are all vegan and could make an interesting side dish or vegetable plate. $4-$5.
Third Place: Brio Tuscan Grill. Of the three restaurants, Brio definitely has the most “atmosphere.”
Valets wait at the door to park your car. (There’s actually plenty of parking, but it’s “parking garage style.”)
Outside, there’s the trademark fountain of Piedmont Town Center and a pleasant patio.
Inside, it’s high ceilings, faux stone, warm, earthy colors, and pretty, pretty people.
The bar scene is hoppin’. It is truly a place to see and be seen. Often they have live music. Skate Rink Jukebox frequently plays there – featuring one of my favorite singers and a fellow veg, Carey Sims. Their music is eclectic, soulful, and covers a range of styles – on their Facebook page, they describe their music as “Funky stuff, sho’nuff!”
I have to give Brio props for including four meatless items (Tomato and Mozzarella Caprese, Margherita Flatbread, Ravioli Caprese, and a Garlic/Spinach/Artichoke Dip) on their $3.95 bar menu. OK, so none of that is vegan – but it’s a start. And you can actually order anything you want (Bruschetta, maybe, minus the cheese) while sitting at the bar – you’ll just pay a little more than $3.95.
Notably, for a restaurant with this big a bar scene, the restrooms (or at least the ladies’) is exceptionally clean.
Also notable, the restaurant is designed in such a way that the elegant dining area is relatively quiet, regardless of what is going on up front. In other words, if you are going out for dinner to mark some special occasion – you won’t feel like you are eating in a “bar.”
So what is there for us vegans and vegetarians to eat?
There are several salads (none too exciting) that can be ordered without cheese and/or meat.
Of course there are lots of interesting pasta options for vegetarians. Fettucine Campania – “fresh fettucine with spicy Marinara, capers, Kalamata olives, basil and parmigiana”- $11.95. Pasta Fra Diavalo – “campenelle with a spicy tomato cream sauce and green onions.” It’s hard to tell what the price is for the veggie version of this – Brio only gives the price for topping it with your choice of shrimp or chicken. Ravioli Di Bello – “Portobello ravioli with Cremini mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh thyme in a light champagne brown butter sauce” – $14.95. Additionally, it appears there may be a few more choices for vegetarians who order their pasta minus the pancetta or chicken.
There’s nothing on the menu specifically for vegans – boo! But, as voters noted, the servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and super-helpful. Often, they can make recommendations, suggest modifications, or offer some other vegan option. (“Even if they have to ask someone, they don’t look at you like you’re from Mars,” one voter wrote.) At a server’s suggestion, I ordered the Penne Mediterranean – “mushrooms, spinach, sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions, Feta, pine nuts and a light vegetable broth” (minus the feta, of course!) $16.95. The ingredients tasted very fresh and the pasta was loaded with flavor.
However, no matter how helpful your server seems, always be clear about what you will and won’t eat. To many, “vegetarian” just means “no meat,” so if you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t eat cheese or doesn’t eat eggs, you’ll need to mention that. Remember to ask about broth, cheese, or butter in sauces. And if you see the word “fresh” beside “pasta”, inquire if the pasta contains eggs.
A couple of notes on places that aren’t Italian, but offer a few noteworthy Italian dishes …
Nourish. I can’t leave out Charlotte’s favorite vegan meal delivery service, can I? Nourish sometimes does “themes” in their meal delivery menus – Mexican, Indian, and yes, Italian. Italian foods that have been offered in the past include a vegetable lasagna with tofu ricotta, baked ziti, and tempeh encrusted with Italian spices. If you haven’t already, sign up to be notified of their weekly menus here. All Nourish’s food is 100% vegan.
Zizi’s. Zizi’s offers two great Italian subs – the Chicken Parmless Sub -“breaded mock fried chicken with herbed marinara sauce” – $6.75; and the Italian Sausage Sub – “mock sausage, peppers, onions, basil marinara” – $6.50. These are 100% vegan, as is everything at Zizi’s.
And, finally, if you haven’t tried Luna’s Living Kitchen’s rawish, vegan take on Lasagna – the Lunasagna – you should. You really should. Zucchini noodles, sundried tomato sauce, mushrooms, and their own cashew cheese – $12.
And a few caveats on other Italian restaurants in the Charlotte, NC area:
I had an omnivore friend excitedly tell me he had recently been to Vivace and noticed there was an entire “Vegetarian” section on their menu! Of course, I immediately had to check out Vivace’s menu online. Unfortunately, Vivace’s idea of “Vegetarian” is actually “Pescaterian” – the so-call vegetarian menu featured calamari, mussells, scallops, anchovies, shrimp, salmon, and tuna! Vivace does have a few vegetarian items on the menu, and of course you can always request the chef make something vegan for you, but don’t go there expecting a huge vegetarian selection.
Happy Cow Network has Maggiano’s Little Italy listed as being veg-friendly. This was surprising to me, as I remembered the menu as being quite meat-centric. So I contacted Maggiano’s to find out what was vegan. The results?
- Salads without meat, eggs, or cheese.
- House and Italian salad dressing.
- String pastas only (does not include Ravioli, Gnocchi, Lasagna or any fresh pastas)
- Garlic and Olive Oil pasta sauce only (apparently the tomato sauces have dairy)
- Sauteed spinach with lemon, garlic, and olive oil; broccolini with lemon, garlic, and olive oil; and grilled asparagus with garlic and olive oil.
The chef will, however, make a special vegan dish for you, and from reports the food is usually wonderful. Be prepared, however – the chef will actually come to your table and talk to you. Some people don’t care, and some people enjoy being the center of attention. But shyer types might feel uncomfortable.
(One way to handle a situation like that? Call the restaurant beforehand, let them know when you’re coming, and ask what they can prepare for you.)
Also, read the menu carefully. For example, they have Mom’s Lasagna – Marinara and Mom’s Lasagna – Meat Sauce. You might, if you don’t read the description carefully, assume the lasagna with marinara sauce would be a cheese lasagna. But both lasagnas are meat lasagnas (ground beef and Italian sausage) – one apparently just has extra meat.
And, finally, if you’re going with a group (work or family) be aware that group dinners are often served “family-style,” which means two to four main courses are selected from the “family style” menu and everyone shares. Choices are very limited for vegetarians (especially those who don’t egg), and nonexistent for vegans. So be aware that, if the rest of your group chooses the family-style option, they’ll be sharing a three-course meal while you’re eating your separate entree. Not really a big deal, but could be awkward or uncomfortable for some people, or in certain situations (i.e, you might suddenly find yourself having to explain to your entire office why you ordered your own separate entree and are not sharing in the spaghetti and meatballs, chicken picatta, and veal marsala with everyone else).
UPDATE 3/1/2013 – This comment came in after voting from a member of the VegCharlotte community, but I wanted to share. “You need to add Angela’s Italian restaurant too! My husband asked them to make angel hair pasta with sautéed veggies in a red sauce, no meat, no cheese, no cream. They said no problem and created an amazing Italian dish!!! Just for me!”