When I first announced that we’d booked a 2-week trip to Italy and Monaco most people were immediately excited and then just as immediately aghast because ‘what on EARTH are YOU going to eat in Italy?!?!?!?!?!’.
Well, rest assured. Not only did I escape death by starvation (quite the opposite in most places, actually) I was pleasantly surprised by some of the offerings — high end dining knows what’s up — and blown away by others — vegan cheese in Italy is an absolute revelation. Between Happy Cow, the kindness of strangers, and the surprisingly good Italian I picked up thanks to Pimsleur (not one Italian person said they couldn’t understand me) we stayed well fed.
Let’s start out with a few helpful phrases. One thing to remember with Italian is the letter ‘c’ in the body of a word is typically pronounced ‘ch’ like ‘church’. There are some exceptions like the word ‘ciao’ where the ‘ch’ sound comes at the beginning (maybe it’s when the ‘c’ is followed by a vowel??). I recommend practicing with a language program or translator (I used Pimsleur) to help you get familiar with pronunciation.
- Sono vegano/vegan – I am Vegan
- This can be helpful for starting the conversation, however, many people – just like in the US or elsewhere – may be confused by what that means, so be prepared to explain further.
- Non mangio carne, pesce, uova o latticini. – I do not eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy.
- Many cultures don’t consider fish to be meat so, again, it’s in your best interest to spell it out.
- Hai opzioni vegane? – Do you have vegan options?
- Olio – Oil
- Burro/ No/ Senza burro, per favore – Butter/ No/ Without butter, please
- Latte/ No/ Senza latte, per favore – Milk/ No/ Without milk, please
- Formaggio/ No/ Senza formaggio, per favore – Cheese/ No/ Without cheese, please
- È possibile utilizzare l’olio al posto del burro? – Is it possible to use oil instead of butter?
- Contiene carne, pesce, uova o latticini? – Does this contain meat, fish, eggs or dairy?
Drink of Choice
Now, most people associate Italy with wine, and that’s absolutely true. There are tons of beautiful wines available to sample, enjoy and purchase. However, being vegan, it’s often difficult to make wine decisions on the fly because it involves me poring over the menu with barnivore queued up waiting for wifi. With that in mind, I typically opted for vegan-friendly Birra Moretti when out and about. It’s light, crisp and refreshing — welcome in some of the 100+ degree temperatures we experienced! I did find out via a woman who’d been in Sicily prior to coming to Milan that most Sicilian wineries do not use animal products in their fining process, making them suitable for non-carnists like myself. We also had the opportunity to try a few unfiltered organic wines, which was a new and delicious experience.
Milan was the first city on our list and to be honest, one that I could most easily see myself living in (get a peek at our adorable airBnB here). You have everything from street wear to high fashion thriving in this city — look no further than the endlessly fashionable residents for proof — and a charming mix of the unashamedly modern in equal parts with the charmingly classic. And the clothes. The Italians, in general, have a way of being stylish without it seeming overworked or too fussed over and it’s enthralling to watch. But, let’s get to why we all came here — the food!
Walden Cafe Milano
This cafe and self-described ‘cocktail lab’ was my first encounter with something I noticed more as the trip continued — a cozy space combining food, drink, books and an inviting atmosphere perfect for people watching. In general, Europeans linger longer over meals and offering someone a book to peruse while they munch is indicative of how long they expect it to take. The very sweet woman working when we first entered (Carola, I believe) spoke some English and I spoke some Italian so between the two she not only helped us locate the correct menu options, but also made recommendations for places to go that night. While the menu here is not extensive, we were able to find some delicious tapas and cocktails to start our evening and the service was amazing.
After getting a little food in, we headed for the canal and wound up having enjoying a few beers at Vista Darsena watching people come in off work and plop down for a smoke or join a group of friends. Like many places, Vista dropped off some free snacks including plain potato chips (think Lays), focaccia (a vegan-friendly bread), olives and crudites. One thing I first noticed at the canal and then again in every city we visited throughout Italy were the dogs — big, small, close cropped and shaggy — they strut and trot around every bit as self-possessed as their owners.
The next morning we ventured out in search of breakfast and found fresh juice bar and eatery Frankie’s Italy. They offer a variety of fresh pressed juices, acai bowls, smoothies and even a few baked goods (there was a vegan option out when we visited). The green juice was exactly what we needed to start the day — so much so that we returned for breakfast again the next day before moving on to Portofino.
If you’re by the Duomo and in search of a bite, Motta Milano 1928 in Piazza Duomo Milano has a decent veggie burger — server assured me it was ‘senza uovo’ — served with an abundance of fries.
We made plans to meet the group for dinner and as such didn’t get to choose the spot. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered it was an out and out seafood restaurant. In my experience, seafood places are where I struggle the most to find options. Combine that with the language barrier and I’d resigned myself to eating bread and olive oil for dinner. I was incredible grateful and surprised when the staff were able to come up with an alternative for us to every course our non-vegan friends ordered. I wouldn’t recommend it for a vegan dinner, but hats off to them for being so accommodating and creative.
Portofino/ Santa Margherita
It’s hard to describe the beauty of Portofino…but driving there is almost aggravating enough to make you blind to it. In general, driving on the highways of Europe is easy and fast (often 80+ mph) but navigating the tiny, cobblestone streets of historic towns in a modern-sized vehicle is the single most emotionally exhausting exercise I’ve ever attempted — and I was the passenger! Luckily, we were finally able to gain access to our airBnB (a charming and surprisingly quiet flat with a tiny, antique elevator, directly above a restaurant/bar, Miami Cafe).
Generally speaking we had a pretty easy time finding food in the Portofino area. Using my newly developed language skills I was able to find us an electrical outlet adapter and a small neighborhood market where we purchased pasta, fruit, fresh veg and beer for the house so I was able to make dinner one night. Walking around it’s easy to find suitable pasta dishes (fresh is typically made with egg, but dry/prepped is fine), focaccia, ciabatta, all the veggies and thin crust pizza (order ‘senza formaggio’ to make it vegan) in restaurants as well as small shops and groceries for fresh produce.
Molo 10 was a delicious surprise and proof positive that it never hurts to ask! Earlier in the day while wandering around we came across a cozy restaurant with a stunning brick ceiling. Intrigued, B asked the hostess if they offered vegan options. After speaking with the chef, she came back to confirm that they could accommodate us, at which point we happily made reservations. This place didn’t pop up on any of our apps, so without asking we never would have known they offered anything vegan. We wound up being 4 for dinner, two vegan and two non and for each course they enjoyed we received an equally impressive vegan alternative. To top things off, they also offered organic wine so we were able to find one to enjoy with our meal. Since we left things in the Chef’s hands I couldn’t even begin to tell you what we had but I can say that it was incredibly delicious and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
Le Cupole, located on the 10th floor of Hotel Bristol, is known for both it’s breathtaking views and it’s equally impressive food. Being the only vegans at the table we took a moment to speak with the host to find out what we could unobtrusively make vegan but he assured us that our experience would be every bit as impressive as that of the others and our service just as enthusiastic. And they did not disappoint. Some five courses, several glasses of organic, unfiltered wine and a dessert course later it felt like bidding adieu to old friends when we said goodnight to their incredible staff.
Nikki Beach, Monte Carlo
Now, when one thinks of the best place to go for lunch ‘beach club’ probably isn’t top of mind. But when I saw that the rice paper veggie wraps at Nikki Beach were one of the best things I ate in Europe I am not kidding you. There is nothing like simple, flavorful food made with fresh ingredients and these bad boys deliver! Bonus: it’s the perfect amount of food to discretely scarf down while wearing a bathing suit. I didn’t have a chance to try the rest of the menu, but they have an entire sit down area for meal service and I’d be willing to bet they have more gems up their sleeve like this one.
Stars ‘n’ Bars
We started this day with a less than impressive food experience but thanks to Happy Cow we found Stars ‘n’ Bars on our stroll around the marina and stopped in for a bite. They had several vegan-friendly items to choose from including a few smoothies, zoodles and a quinoa bowl we opted to split. The menu is a video menu available in multiple languages which helps avoid language barrier miscommunications.
Florence was the last city we visited in Italy and my favorite to eat in (that’s what really counts — right?). I mean, being surrounded by priceless renaissance history, having studied fine arts all through school, was pretty awesome, but until you’ve have Italian vegan cheese, you haven’t lived.
Oddly enough, I probably would have never found these places if it weren’t for a total coincidence.
The night before, late, B and I had decided to book a tour through Florence because I was concerned that if we tried to do it ourselves we’d wind up waiting in lines forever and miss something. I purchased on viator around midnight, tour meeting time was 8:15. We hustled out the next morning — in the wrong direction. Corrected ourselves and are now completely late rushing towards the meeting place only to find there is not one, not two, but no less than four different tour groups all waiting. That is when I discover my phone has decided to go dark and I cannot see the screen, or my waiver, or my confirmation email at all. Increasingly desperate, hot, sweaty and frustrated I continue alternating between mashing all the buttons on the sides of my phone in an effort to restart it and plugging it into a power bank while trying to explain the situation in broken Italian.
Everyone there is very sympathetic, but unable to help. Then a miracle occurred. Not only did I finally get my phone to work, but in the midst of trying to make conversation and plead for mercy we mentioned being vegan. One of the men there happened to not only be a manager with a tour company, but a vegan activist with Anonymous for the Voiceless. He helped us get confirmed for the next tour, chatted with us a bit about veganism in Italy and he also recommended these two (amazeballs) restaurants. Thanks for saving the day, Luca!
Universo Vegano Firenze
If you’re vegan – or even just open to trying vegan food – and in Florence, do yourself a favor and park your booty here and just inhale everything. Universo was SO good, we returned two days in a row so we could try more things and I still would have eaten there probably 3 more times in a row. While the restaurant itself has a very casual, low-key vibe the quality of the food is anything but! We tried a variety of items but I was really blown away by the charcuterie. The textures, flavors and mouthfeel were all on point. Vegan cheese is just one of those things that can still be hit or miss but both the cold varieties and the one on the pizza I ordered were amazing. Equally impressive were the desserts. The offer a mix of freshly made options from stuffed croissants to tiramisu and tartes.
Another restaurant in the tradition of combined reading and eating space, Liberia Brac is a charming little gem that often boasts a packed house. Definitely make reservations, and if you can, dine on the earlier side to avoid the line. It sounds like they do typically offer vegan wines, but the night we went they were, unfortunately, out, so we didn’t get a chance to sample any. The food was delicious, the space was intimate (LOVED the little atrium) and the service was attentive but unhurried. It’s a casual spot but nature, but if you want to dress up a little it can easily turn into a romantic dinner spot for two.
L’OV Osteria Vegetariana
This spot (check it our here) stole my heart for basically looking the way I’d like my living room to one day. The moss-fronted counter, hanging golden pothos, tropical palms, charmingly eclectic lighting and global inspired throw pillows create a beautiful and relaxing atmosphere. Once I tasted the food, however, my adoration soared to a whole new level.
Whew! I must say, looking back on all the amazing meals we had on this trip, I can’t believe I was worried about finding options in Italy. Goes to show that with a little language practice and a whole lotta Happy Cow, you can easily be vegan in the places you’d least suspect, not to mention, the search for options often leads us on unexpected adventures or makes us new friends. Til the next trip!