Being a Veggie in Italy

So, I didn’t have time to write this yesterday as I was busy busy busy writing offer letters for our upcoming Opera course in June. However, I wanted to share with you my thoughts and experiences on being vegetarian in Italy. It’s not going to be an article about the benefits of being vegetarian or vegan (though there are many), nor is it going to condemn anyone for their choice in diet. It’s simply an account of some of the more unusual experiences I’ve had while living abroad.

veggie grass
Standard vegetarian meal!

Being a veggie in the UK is pretty easy. Yes, we still get people asking about our protein (why is it that they worry about it all of a sudden?!), and some people still get a little defensive when they find out (Ever heard the joke “How do you know when someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” Well, yes we will if we happen to be eating together), but all in all it’s not too bad. Plus there are plenty of choices in supermarkets for vegetarians and vegans, and more and more restaurants are offering a wider range of items on their menus. It’s actually one restaurant in particular that led me to write this post. Perhaps you missed it but there was a big furor on Facebook yesterday about an advertising campaign run by a particular restaurant chain. I won’t say who but it’s not the Handmade Burger Co. Basically the ads were very condescending towards vegetarians and vegans. They included pictures of cows, burgers and slogans like “They eat grass so you don’t have to” or “Vegetarians: resistance is futile” and the lovely “You’ll always remember when you gave up being a vegetarian”. Well, no I won’t but I’ll always remember the day I decided never to eat at your restaurant. The company has since made a rather pathetic apology on Facebook saying they didn’t mean to offend anyone, it was supposed to be light-hearted, and that they’ve been feeding vegetarians for years with their veggie burgers. Oh, right, so it was okay to totally alienate a huge group of people then? As some people pointed out, had the company gone after a religious group in such a manner, the ads most likely would have never made it to the printers. Imagine seeing “You’ll always remember the day you gave up being a Jew” over a picture of a bacon cheeseburger. No, not gonna happen. This is the attitude that some of us still face in modern Britain, where we have one of the most eclectic cuisines in the world. So what’s it like being vegetarian in a Mediterranean country where they love their meat?

Well, let’s start with a little story from Spain. Three years ago I went to work as an au pair with a young family in the North of Spain. When they picked me up from the airport, I mentioned that I was a vegetarian. “Not a problem,” they said, “we don’t eat much meat anyway.” Oh, good. I was happy because I had been a little apprehensive about the reception I would get. Part of my job was picking the children up from school and taking them to their nan’s house for food. The first day there, we told the grandma that I didn’t eat meat and she promptly served me chicken noodle soup. Ah. The subsequent conversation went as follows:
“But I don’t eat meat.”
“But there’s no meat in it,” came the reply.
“No,” I explained, “but it’s made from meat.”
*Look of realisation crosses the nan’s face* “So, you don’t eat anything from animals?”
“No,” I replied, hoping she would understand.
“No ham? No sausages? No chicken?”
“No, no, no.”
*Look of panic sets in as she starts to wonder what on Earth she is going to feed me* “Fish?” She asked, with a note of desperation in her voice.
I looked at her and had a sudden vision of causing this dear old lady a heart attack. I caved. “Okay, I’ll eat fish.”
The look of relief on her face told me I had done the right thing. So, for the next nine months, I was a pescatarian but only at her house. Everywhere else, I was vegetarian. Luckily for me though, my favourite Spanish dish is tortilla, which is just eggs, potato and onion. Other than a few run ins with some die-hard chorizo fans, my time in Spain wasn’t too difficult.

veggie 1
Don’t forget that plants have feelings, too!

And then came Italy. Land of Lasagne. More specifically, Abruzzo, home to the arrosticini (lamb skewers to everyone else). How would I survive?! Well, luckily, one of the first people I met was actually a vegetarian, as were two of his cousins, and some of his friends were even vegan. Wait a minute, what?! How did I manage that? Through Couchsurfing and a lot of luck, I guess. So now I knew that I would survive here. As obviously most of the time I cook for myself, eating at home is easy. Eating out is usually fine because you can just order pizza – even vegans do it, just don’t add cheese. Other vegetarian options can be limited, perhaps pasta or a salad. Although at one restaurant I just had to make do with side orders as all the main courses contained meat. The problem is that Italians do not see “meat” as the rest of the world sees “meat”. If you say to them that you don’t eat meat, they will promptly try to sell you fish or chicken. Italians are also very nosy and like to get all up in your business. One day, I popped into the little shop to buy bread. That’s it. That’s all I wanted. Simple enough, right? Wrong.

Imagine the scene, I walk in and there’s the lady behind the counter (“Ciao”) and an older gentleman customer at the counter (“Salve”). They’re having a little gossip while he finishes his pizza. I promptly order my bread and the lady starts trying to sell me other items. She’s actually a really good saleswoman, totally wasted in that little shop.
“Bread, please.”
“Anything else?”
“No, thank you, just the bread.”
“Eggs? Pizza? There’s white or red.”
“No, thanks.”
“The pizza is really good,” interjects the customer.
“Go on, try a piece,” encourages the shopkeeper.
“But is there meat in it? Because I don’t eat meat.”
“No there’s no meat. Only ham and cheese.”
“Ah, but ham is meat.”
“You don’t eat meat?” asks the man, completely shocked.
“No, I don’t.”
“But what if you want to make a lasagne?!” Acting as if I have offended his great ancestors.
“Well, you can make it with vegetables.” Says the shopkeeper.
“Yeah, I just use aubergine.” I lie, as I have never really had an overwhelming desire to make lasagne, although I have eaten it and it’s delish!
I promptly pay for my bread and leave the man before I cause another heart attack. I’m sure he went home and told his wife all about the crazy girl who doesn’t eat meat.

So, that’s the kind of thing you have to deal with on a daily basis here in Italy. I know most people mean well but it gets a little tiring when you have to answer the same questions over and over again.




8 thoughts on “Being a Veggie in Italy

  1. I had all sorts of similar responses! I don’t eat bread, pizza or pasta (not even gluten free) and I don’t mind in the slightest, but the responses from Italians was almost hilarious! They just couldn’t comprehend it. Oh, and I don’t drink coffee. But none of that means I don’t love Italy and Italians 🙂 .

  2. That’s interesting. Maybe this is a regional thing? When I went to Italy, I stayed in my Gran, Grandpa and I stayed in our ancestral home town by the sea, Agropoli. Our relatives had their own boats and worked as fishermen. They thought I was crazy when I said I was homesick for my Mom’s meatloaf with brown gravy. The emphasis was on fresh seafood that I have to say was so light and fresh and very tasty the way they made it.

    In the U.S. my grandparents did not eat much meat when they started here and did not ever get into that habit throughout their lives. The diet was based on fresh grown veggies like broccoli rabe, tomatoes, squash, zucchini with herbs like garlic and basil. We had pasta of all kinds, cheeses, fresh fruits, frittatas and all kinds of fish. Only sometimes we had lamb, chicken. the only meat we had regularly were meatballs (pork, veal and beef ground together) but this was an American invention, not something I saw in Agropoli.

    There might still be a lingering attitude about eating habits in some regions. Veggies, pasta and fish were peasant foods whereas having meat was more an upper class thing.

    If you like eggs I highly recommend frittatas. They are delish! Try a squash blossom frittata. they are made with the flowers of the squash and are sweet and very light. Or try potatoes, peppers and egg fritatas. With some semolina bread and red wine, you’ll enjoy your meal.

    • Thanks for the advice! Arrosticini are definitely a local thing and Abruzzo is well known for them. You don’t really get them in the other regions, except in specialised restaurants. My friend in Spain had a similar theory about meat – she thought the grandma was so obsessed with meat because they wouldn’t have had much while she was growing up. Now she can afford it so she doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t eat it.

      • It is something how in the past the upper classes were envied because they were so well fed. But their diets were ghastly. Many side effects like gout were prevalent due to the rich diets. We benefit from having so much nutritional info available to us. We can make informed choices and understand the benefits and risks of some foods.

  3. As I am 18 days away from going to Italy for two weeks, this couldn’t have been better timed! I usually prefer saying “I don’t eat meat” rather than “I’m vegetarian” (these words have an odd effect on people in North America who almost always seem to brace themselves for some long winded speech about animal cruelty that isn’t coming). So it’s really good to know the cultural differences while I’m traveling. Thank you 🙂

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