Touring Italy with a Vegetarian...
The Chowish Lurker and I will be spending 10 days Italy. Our itinerary is: Venice (1 night) Milan (2 nights, with a day trip to Modena/Marinello), Naples (3 nights), Rome (3 nights).
For those who don't know us from the Midwest board, TCL is mostly vegetarian. It isn't that she loves animals, she just doesn't care for most meat. Poultry is okay, but shellfish isn't.
What I'm looking for is some advice for our trip. Suggestions for restaurants are great, but we're also looking for tips on managing her dietary preferences throughout our trip.
You don't have to do anything special. Just eat. Meat is not that important. It's the nature of restaurants that meat looks like a big element on the menu, but it's very easy to avoid. There are always cheeses and vegs to choose from. If she doesn’t care if a little meat broth has sneaked into some sauce or other, there is really nothing to worry about. A couple of months ago I finally had lunch at Joia in Milan, after years of wanting to try it. It was absolutely splendid in every way. It's vegetarian with a little fish.
I'll echo what mbfant said - I can't think of an easier European country to accommodate vegetarians. We're not vegetarians (though my son is), but I don't eat much meat.
Out of the courses of antipasti, primi (mostly pasta), secondi and dessert, it's quite common to only eat 2 courses. Vegetable dishes (contorni) are a side dish that you order separately, but that is served with the dinner. Antipasti might or might not include non-meat dishes, but there are almost always meat-free pastas. As Maureen mentioned, many restaurants have cheese dishes. Things like fresh pecorino with honey or cheese grilled over the fire (scamorza, like mozzarella, alla brace) (both were antipasti). Secondi are usually meats or fish/seafood, but not always. You may see polenta with gorgonzola (I had that as a secondo at a Tuscan restaurant in Rome), or similar items. I think contorni are often a shared dish, but sometimes they're so delicious that I don't share (you can't imagine how good a plate of roast potatos with olive oil can be).
And if you eat at a pizzeria, you'll see a huge variety of toppings, including several delightful vegetable options that you don't see in the U.S. - eggplant, zucchini, zucchini blossoms.
there is a fantastic and charming Milanese eatery/milk shop that is open for lunch only near the Duomo and serves vegetarian food, Alla Vecchia Latteria, on via dell'Unione.
I've never eaten in La Zucca in Venezia, but it gets high marks.
In Rome, the vegetarian restaurant Margutta in via Margutta has a wonderful buffet lunch, with tremendous variety, for a very reasonable price.
While it's true that Italian cuisine is not necessarily meat-driven, it is quite hard for tourists who must eat in restaurants in Italy --- and who rely on "recommendations" from others -- to get away from meat dishes. Italian restaurants don't really reflect the traditional cuisine in many respects ("contorni" variety can be non-existent), especially in tourist areas, and most recommenders -- including professional ones -- simply cave to the demand of foreign tourists to eat meat centered meals in Italy, and assume that non-meat eaters will be happy with endless cheese and starch and pizza..
It is possible to find great vegetable meals in Italy -- with artichokes, beans, etc -- but you have to dig. And don't be afraid to tell your server/chef that you much prefer vegetables to meat or seafood. Often their eyes will light up and they will produce no end of marvelous specialties -- I would definitely take this approach in Napoli. Local vegetables can be spectacular, but they don't also show up on restaurant menus.
This is good advice. The more you engage a waiter or restaurateur in conversation, the better you will eat. They need to know you care and that you know something about the local food. Sometimes a printed menu is just to keep the tourists quiet while regulars are told what's good today or get a crack at something there are only two portions of in the kitchen. And restaurants do rely on meat. The variety of vegs you'll see in a market in the morning don't often turn up on trattoria menus.
I'm always hesitant to spread my awful pidgin Italian around to others, lest you end up with exactly the opposite of what you want on your plate, but I will post these words which I think you will find useful. Please remember that most Italians will never laugh at anyone trying to communicate with them, in any language, and many Italian waitstaff speak a smattering of simple English.
verdure = vegetables
Preferisco = I prefer (preferisciamo = we prefer)
Piatti = plate or "dish"
Mangio = I eat (mangiamo = we eat)
solo = only
senza = without
carni = meat
lo stomaco non piace = my stomach does't like
With those simple words, you or your dining partner can communicate to a waiter that you prefer vegetables, dishes with vegetables, dishes without meat, that your stomach doesn't like meat . No Italian restauranteur or waiter wants to upset your stomach. Ever.
I generally find in Italian restaurants that the vegetable offerings are mainly concentrated on the antipasti and pasti areas of the menu. But you can always ask if there is a "secondo di verdure" . Also remember that soups make a great "primi" in lieu of endless pasta, and they are quite often vegetable soups.
By the way, a classic Neopolitan vegetarian dish is pasta e fagioli, which in that part of Italy is chickpeas long-cooked to a soupy sauce over a heavy-weight pasta. (It is sometimes called pasta e ceci). You may find flecks of ham in it. I had it at Mimi alla Ferrovia near the central train station in Napoli, but you should be able to find anywhere. It can be a rather bland dish.
You get an A for effort, but I do have some corrections:
verdura, the singular, tends to be used collectively. un secondo di verdura would be a veg-based main dish, but asking for "Qualche piatto vegetariano" or "qualche secondo vegetariano" or "qualche piatto senza carne" would be more idiomatic. (Qualche, some, rather than "un," a, emphasizes the interrogative, as in 'Might you have any vegetarian dishes?')
Preferisco is correct, but the first person plural is preferiamo. Carne is meat, the plural, carni, would exist only in something like "carni misti."
Vegetable soups are likely to have a base of meat broth. Pasta e fagioli (beans) and pasta e ceci (chickpeas) are two different, though similar, dishes, and the names are not interchangeable.
I would skip attempting clever remarks about the stomach because you have already stepped on a linguistic landmine and it will only get worse. Lo stomaco non piace means that someone or something does not like your stomach, not that your stomach doesn’t like something. Play it safe and keep it simple: "sono vegetariano" or "non mangio la carne per niente." To ask if something contains meat: "contiene la carne?" meat broth is brodo di carne.
I AM a language purist, and proud of it. I'm even giving a paper on the Italian language of food at the Oxford Symposium on Food History. But seriously, whereas it is true that Italians are very kind and helpful in the language department (as long as you're a visitor; if you live here, they expect you to shape up), it is also true that the more words you know, the better you will eat.