Italian cuisine, like many cuisines of the Mediterranean, is considered “vegetarian-friendly” because it features plenty of meatless dishes. Since not everybody has the same definition of “vegetarian,” let’s first clarify the terminology. By vegetarian dish, I mean a dish where no meat or fish in any form was ever used (so, no shrimp, no chicken broth, no anchovy paste), but where animal products may be involved (so, yes milk, eggs, honey). This type of vegetarianism is referred to as lacto-ovo, and usually also includes all types of cheese (even though some cheese is made using animal-derived rennet). So, Italian food is generally OK for lacto-ovo vegetarians, whereas vegans may have a hard time finding a satisfying meal.
North American cuisine tends to be very meat-centered, with the exception of some “vegetarian-heavy” cities (see here for a Top Ten list) where a higher percentage of vegetarians tends to live. In Italy, instead, a number of meatless dishes are fully part of everyone’s diet, and they can also be found in pretty much every restaurant. As a result, there aren’t many dedicated vegetarian restaurants in Italy (but you may find some in the big cities). Another consequence is that imitation meat is not as common as it is in North America – Italian people that become vegetarian generally have plenty of options and don’t need to resort to imitations.
One slight problem with vegetarian food in Italy is that it is sometimes hard to recognize which dishes are in fact vegetarian (and restaurants don’t help by generally not tagging vegetarian dishes on their menus). Italians don’t call a pasta dish “vegetarian,” they simply call it pasta al pomodoro, gnocchi ai quattro formaggi, trenette al pesto. Many pizzas are also vegetarian, but they go under the names of marinara, margherita, funghi (mushrooms), olive (olives), Quattro Formaggi (four cheeses). There is, however, one type of pizza explicitly called “vegetariana,” topped with grilled veggies.
So, here is a list of traditional dishes that happen to be vegetarian. Aside from salads, sides and soups… and obviously desserts, the list includes many first courses: Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmigiana), Canederli (optionally), Pizzoccheri, pasta or gnocchi with many types of vegetarian sauces (e.g.: garlic, oil and chili pepper, butter and sage, tomato, creamy tomato, Arrabbiata, Primavera, Puttanesca, Gorgonzola and walnuts, Quattro Formaggi, funghi (mushrooms), peperoni (bell peppers), pesto), many risottos (as long as made with vegetable broth), and also some ravioli (e.g. ricotta and spinach, herbs, mushrooms).
As for the reasons why meat is not the main star of the show as it is in North America, a few theories can be made:
- North America has a tradition of cattle ranching due to its vast prairies and veggies tend to be seen more as a side dish, something that you have to eat because it’s healthy, but that doesn’t add much to the flavor. There isn’t much tradition around vegetable preparations, and, in some cases, they are even considered more of a garnish that you don’t have to eat.
- Italy, on the other hand, has very different geography that makes cattle ranching more challenging. Also, the postwar years were especially tough, and meat hasn’t always been as available to everyone as it is nowadays. As a result, the traditional cuisine naturally drifted towards using more produce and more starches.
But there may also be a more practical reason why produce is considered so differently: many of the vegetables grown in southern Europe are simply tastier than their North American counterparts. Possibly because of the favorable climate and soils, vegetables actually taste amazing! Better veggies make for more successful vegetarian dishes and, in an environment where cuisine is centered on a few clean flavors and a handful of high-quality ingredients, interesting vegetables with complex flavor profiles simply claimed a central role in a number of dishes.
Unfortunately, Italian restaurants in North America tend to feature few, if any, meatless dishes on their menus. This is probably an adaptation of the expectation of the general public. Pizzerias tend to be more reliable in featuring at least a few vegetarian options.