When in Italy, Eat Like the Italians!
Posted by guest blogger: Krista Haynes
Eating in Italy is like entering a culinary landscape far removed from what Americans have become accustomed to, where time remains still, and recipes have been passed down for generations. I have visions of a rustic kitchen with a ray of sunlight beaming though the window, a puff of cloud from freshly kneaded pasta dough primed to be hand rolled and cut into various shapes and sizes, or wrapped around humanely raised meats or unprocessed cheese. The noodles would soon be graced with a naturally sweet tomato sauce so delicious it may be mistaken for candy.
Food of this caliber makes a girl following a “restricted-vegan-diet” question whether it’s necessary to stick to her “rules”. How does one experience the finest of Italian cuisine when traditional fare is centered on Parmigiano-Reggiano, mozzarella, salami, crema, and white flour? I think to myself, “When in Rome”…well, in my case, “When in Firenze”. I decide to let loose and allow a few slight modifications. What I left with was a truly scrumptious experience worth writing home about.
As the owner of an oatmeal catering company, I’m pretty set in my ways with variations of hot or cold overnight oats each morning. I knew breakfast might prove challenging as porridge is not a staple in Italy…onto plan B. Most hotels will include a breakfast buffet, which is quite consistent from one hotel to the next. Typical fare that graced my plate included scrambled or hard-boiled eggs with vibrant yellow yolk, a true sign of freshness. Granola with soymilk was a surprising find, along with the typical assortment of ripe fruit and pressed juices, homemade vegan breads with fresh jam and bruschetta as savory breakfast options. The overall crowd favorites for others were the meats and cheese.
Lunch or Dinner
Often, choosing a dining out option for both a vegan’s pallet and a carnivore’s appetite can be challenging. Luckily, I live in California where there is a healthy balance that satisfies a variety of dietary needs. I wasn’t quite sure if Italy would prove the same. However, I found myself stumbling upon a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, soups, breads, fruits, sandwiches, and cheese-less vegetarian entrees that graced almost every menu. I even found places with options that reminded me of the vegan dishes I’d make at home or grab from the salad bar of my local health food grocery store.
One such place just happened to be right next door to my favorite hotel, recommended to us by Eva of Eviactive Travel. Il Desco Bistro, next to the Il Guelfo Bianco Hotel, was the golden ticket. With options ranging from lentils and gluten-free grains such as quinoa, to fresh baked ratatouille or faux meats like seitan, a vegan could find solace at this cute café. http://www.ilguelfobianco.it/restaurant.htm
While wandering around the city it was easy to find sandwiches loaded with roasted veggies (eggplant, red peppers, zucchini, etc.). Some had cheese, but I handed the cheese over to my boyfriend who was more than glad to accommodate. Another vegan-friendly find included a traditional vegetable bread soup called Ribollita. Be sure to ask if they can make it “senza pancetta” meaning “without Italian bacon”, and without chicken stock, which some recipes call for.
Bruschetta where I’m from usually comes adorned with cheese, but I found with extreme joy that the Italians leave this ingredient off and allow delicate leaves of basil and fresh ripe tomatoes to steal the show – and oh what a performance they made!
If you’re looking for a quick bite, you can’t beat the top floor of the San Lorenzo Market, Il Mercado Centrale. Upon entering, I felt as if I had just walked into my local Whole Foods Market. I’m pretty sure Whole Foods tried to recreate the ambiance of a true Florentine market. You will find a food or drink station that suits any culinary craving. From pizza, meats and breads, to cheeses, gelato, beer and wine, it may be easy to overlook the hippie-style vegan hut offering veggie burgers, smoothies and salads. I didn’t eat at the vegan joint simply because I wanted to experience foods I couldn’t order back home.
When all else fails, eat pizza. The Fuoco Matto Pizza and Grill Ristorante, where I discovered my favorite pie, didn’t disappoint. It may not be the quaint, hidden gem tucked back in a hard-to-find alley, but upon entering we were greeted with a complementary glass of Prosecco and what appeared to be a calzone-like appetizer that my boyfriend noted as extra drool-worthy. I ordered a pizza vegetariano senza formaggio (without cheese) and what I found in front of me was by far the most sensational pizza that has ever grazed these lips. According to their website, the dough is prepared and left to rise according to an ancient recipe, then baked in a wood-fire oven and topped with the freshest ingredients. The basil had an aromatic quality that I’d never known and the cherry tomatoes were bursting with flavor.
Via Ventisette Prile, 16
Ever since watching the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, I’ve imagined myself gallivanting across the Tuscan countryside in a tiny little Fiat drifting past old farmhouses on a majestic, winding road only to discover the finest of food, wine, and scenic views. Our journey from Florence to Chianti didn’t start off so dreamy when we realized data roaming GPS charges were in full swing on our cell phone and old-school fold out maps proved to be a bit more challenging to comprehend compared to the type we were used to. Once we got our bearings, we stopped in at a roadside pizzeria where I devoured another helping of my newfound love, Ribollita. We continued to our Hotel, the Belvedere di San Leonino. While in Castellina in Chianti we feasted at a variety of local ristorantes and trattorias where I was able to find lots of vegan options. One of my favorites turned out to be in our backyard, the restaurant at the Hotel Belvedere. On our last night in the countryside, we dined on the outdoor patio – under the Tuscan sun. As the sun set upon the horizon, we had two glasses filled with the finest of Chianti wine, toasting to what had been a trip of a lifetime. I started dinner with a rosemary white bean and olive oil appetizer followed by vegetarian pasta. It was my first introduction to unboxed, homemade pappardelle noodles covered in a blanket of creamy tomato sauce. Fresh pasta is made with eggs, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to experience one of Italy’s signature offerings.
Dessert or Mid-afternoon Snack
After a bit of research and some investigative roaming, I discovered that not all gelato is created equal. Turns out most gelaterias offer dairy-free treats ranging from fruit-filled sorbet to chocolate soy (soia) gelato or sorbetto. Two of my favorites were Venchi and Gelato Biologico where I was able to taste a rare treat, Chianti sorbet, made of wine from the same region. It was an interesting flavor but I prefer the vegan chocolate coconut and the vegan almond gelato, stacked on my just-off-the-iron waffle cone. My heart melts just thinking about it.
Edoardo Il Gelato Biologico
Piazza del Duomo,
45r – Firenze
Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, 18
If your not in the mood for gelato and need something to hold you over ’til the restaurants open around 7pm? No worries pick up some fresh produce, snack, or a pastry from a tiny market while exploring the city. Produce is usually priced per kg. so you can mix and match with just the amount you need. !It’s been about a month since returning home from Italy, plenty of time for any extra weight to have reared its ugly head – Hey, didn’t Julia Roberts need to buy new pants after visiting Rome in Eat, Pray, Love? Maybe all the walking and hiking along the Cinque Terre negated any extra calories consumed…or perhaps it’s the simplicity of Italy’s finest and freshest ingredients that free the mind of any worries most likely to plague a bikini-body obsessed California girl. It truly is heaven on Earth. Lovely Florence, this foodie won’t be able to stay away for long; ’til next time.
Krista Haynes is a Registered Dietitian (RD) residing in Manhattan Beach, California. She divides her time working in research and development for Capital Brands, the company behind the NutriBullet, and running her own oatmeal catering and delivery service, Oatsies (www.oatsiesla.com). While a foodie at heart, when she’s not in the kitchen testing recipes or cooking, you can find her walking or lounging on the beach, hiking, practicing yoga, jogging, or daydreaming about all of the places she’d love to travel.