2/01/2013 09:25:00 AM

Hold the Pepperoni: Exploring the World of Vegan Italian Cuisine

Fettuccine alfredo. Spaghetti carbonara. Pepperoni pizza. Giant plates of cheese and charcuterie. Thick slabs of buttery garlic bread. When people think of Italian food, these are the types of dishes that usually come to mind, which is why the term “vegan Italian food” seems like almost an oxymoron at first. But Italian food isn’t all meat, cheese, cream and butter - you don’t have to look far to find hearty Italian dishes that forgo animal products altogether.

Veganism has seen a surge in popularity over the past few years, likely due to celebrity endorsements, best-selling diet books like the Skinny Bitch series and an overall greater societal focus on health and nutrition. According to a 2011 study by the Vegetarian Resource Group, approximately 2.5% of all Americans identify as vegan - up from 1% in 2009. That’s 7.5 million vegans. No wonder Italian chefs have started to take note.

In 2010, longtime East Village Italian joint John’s of 12th Street introduced a special all-vegan menu that includes dishes like seitan parmigiana, vegan ravioli in fresh tomato-basil sauce or non-dairy alfredo and even vegan cannolis and panna cotta for dessert. When we visited recently to check out the offerings, it seemed most of the other patrons were ordering off the vegan menu too - perhaps because they couldn’t get a table at Angelica’s Kitchen next door.

At Italian megastore Eataly, there’s a vegetarian Italian restaurant called Le Verdure located in the produce section - right next to other, similar restaurants devoted to pasta, fish, pizza and meat. While there are only a few dishes on the menu that are designated strictly vegan, executive chef Alex Pilas said that most can be altered to accommodate vegan diets.

“Italian food is all about simplicity,” Pilas says. “A lot of people have this image of Italian food as needing lots of butter and cheese, but some of the best pastas are very simply dressed, with a little bit of oil or tomato-based sauce... One of my favorite dishes I ate while in Puglia was an orecchiette with broccoli rabe, chili flakes and olive oil. That’s it - no meat, no cheese.”

As Pilas explained it, traditional Southern and Central Italian cuisine is very well-suited to veganism in general. In the North, where richer land allows for more cattle and livestock, butter is the main cooking ingredient, and dishes featuring beef, veal and chicken are more common. Meanwhile, in Central and Southern Italy, there’s a greater focus on red tomato sauces and vegetables, and olive oil is used primarily instead of butter.

“Vegan may be a relatively new idea for the U.S., but it’s been around for awhile in Italy,” Pilas said. “They may not call it that, but if you look at a lot of traditional cuisine, it’s vegan.”

Mark Mebus, a former chef at Blossom in New York and now chef and co-owner of Blackbird Pizzeria, an all-vegan pizza shop in Philadelphia, noted that some non-vegan Italian dishes were actually originally vegan - before Americans got their hands on the recipes.

“Take polenta, for example,” he said. “This is a popular Italian dish, but it only has butter and cream in America. Traditionally, it’s made with just cornmeal, salt and water.”

While vegan pizza might sound like a hard sell, Mebus said that the response in Philly has been mostly all positive, both from vegan and non-vegan customers. While some occasionally complain about the texture of the tapioca-based cheese they use on their slices, “most people seem to really enjoy it,” he said.

“It’s quality that really matters,” he said. “Quality, time and effort. That’s why there’s so much bad pizza, in Philly in particular - people just throw it together.”

Mebus, on the other hand, spent two years tweaking the recipe for his pizza, focusing on the crust and the sauce - which he says are “90 percent of what makes pizza good.”

“Toppings, for the most part, are just that,” he said, though Blackbird certainly doesn’t skimp on the toppings, either. In addition to Daiya cheese, Mebus’ pies are topped with everything from seitan sausage to charred Brussels sprouts - making the shop a vegan pizza lover’s paradise.

It isn’t just the strictly Italian vegan restaurants that are making good vegan Italian food. For every restaurant like Portobello Vegan Trattoria in Portland, there are several vegan restaurants that don’t specialize in any one cuisine in particular. Most of them, however, serve at least one or two vegan Italian dishes. Candle 79 in New York City makes a “Spaghetti & Wheat Balls” dish that’s topped with truffled tomato sauce and cashew Parmesan. Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles offers an herb-cornmeal-crusted eggplant parmesan panini with cashew ricotta. Sublime in Ft. Lauderdale has a mushroom ravioli with cashew cream in a slow-roasted tomato butter sauce. And that’s just a few examples.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Italian dishes are also popular at raw vegan restaurants, where all food is cooked at temperatures below 118 degrees Fahrenheit. That means no boiled pasta or baked pizza - but Sarma Melngailis, founder of One Lucky Duck and Pure Food and Wine, believes you don’t need any of that to have good Italian food.

One of Pure Food and Wine’s oldest - and most cherished - recipes is a raw zucchini and heirloom tomato lasagna made with macadamia-pumpkin seed ricotta. Melngailis said they also frequently make “pastas” out of yellow squash, which can be cut into long, thin ribbons reminiscent of the real deal.

“If you compare it to a bowl of pasta, it’s maybe not as warm or chewy,” she said. “But it’s fresher, healthier.”

As she put it, she’s not trying to replicate the typical Italian experience - rather, she’s creating a new tradition with her food. All the usual Italian flavors - tomato, garlic, herbs - are there, but the dishes are decidedly different from what you might find at the average red-sauce joint in Little Italy.

“Our food stands on its own,” she said.

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