Monday, July 4, 2011

Vegan Roman Holiday

Pappardelle con  PorciniPachino

It's been a while since my last post, as I've been quite busy with work, but I did go to Rome and Sicily with my mother in May and I'm happy to report that veganism is quite easy and tasty in Italy. It was the first time I had been to Rome with my mother. Our family immigrated to the United States from Italy in the early 1970s and I visited Rome about 20 years ago, but my mother had never been there before. I'm glad I got to spend Mother's Day back in Italy with my mother. 

We stayed in the heart of Rome and we were surrounded by many restaurants geared to tourists (lots of pizza, although pizza is a Neapolitan specialty, not Roman). Eventually we found a more traditional Roman restaurant close to the Pantheon aptly named "Antica Trattoria da Pietro al Pantheon." Many restaurants along the street had baskets of fresh produce from the Roman countryside out front. This one had huge porcini mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus, puntarelle (chicory sprouts), wild berries, quail eggs and goose eggs on display. I had never seen fresh porcini mushrooms before and I was shocked to learn that they were so big -  7-9 inches tall! In the US I've only been able to find dried porcini mushrooms. 

Spring signals the start of a vegetable lovers paradise in Italy. Italians love their vegetables and the Romans are no exception. I was impressed with their thorn-less Roman artichokes.  Every part of the Roman artichoke can be eaten as it has no thorns and no prickly center "choke." This trattoria's Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish style artichokes) were to die for! The whole artichoke (no trimming, no batter, no breading) was deep fried and simply seasoned with lemon juice and mint. Our waitress, Sara, instructed us to just tear the leaves off and eat them as if they were potato chips. We were shocked by how tender and crispy the outer whole leaves were. If you've ever prepared artichokes you know that you cannot eat the tips of the outer leaves since they are thorny and tough. My mother and I were equally impressed with their presentation, too - they were flattened so that they resembled sunflowers. We ate every bit of these artichokes - stems and all.

Carciofi alla Giudia

For my main course I had the "pappardelle con porcini e pachino" Pappardelle are a wide- ribboned pasta (not gluten-free at this restaurant) and "pachino" are small, round Sicilian tomatoes. Of course it was delicious! You can see a photo at the top of the page. Sara told us that all the pastas at this trattoria are made fresh every morning by Stefano's mother. Stefano is the gracious and multilingual gentleman that runs the restaurant. Most pastas, just in case you don't know, are vegan - just flour and water. Below is a little display of the pastas that were available the day we dined there.

Display of pastas made by Stefano's mother. The gnocchi here are
vegan as they are made of flour and potatoes. Some gnocchi,
especially in Northern Italy are made with eggs and milk.
 The stuffed pastas (tortellini, ravioli) are usually not vegan.

 Fresh Roman artichokes, lettuce, and asparagus. Note that the artichokes
 are purple and thorn-less.

Porcini mushrooms - first time I had ever seen them fresh.

Antica Trattoria da Pietro al Pantheon is not a vegan or vegetarian restaurant per se, but they do offer many traditional, typical, plant-based Roman dishes. So all you have to do in most cases is ask them to hold the grated cheese or anchovy paste in order to make them vegan. They have great pastas and seasonal vegetables. Rome is known for it's puntarelle (chicory sprouts) during this time of the year. My mother, who is not a vegan, had the puntarelle salad with a hint of anchovy paste. For her main course she had the gnocchi with asparagus, truffles, truffle oil and a grated cheese (probably a Romano cheese). I found that most Italians are quite knowledgeable about what's in their food, especially the waitstaff at restaurants, and they can easily modify whatever you are ordering or make suggestions. Of course it also helps if you speak Italian, as my mother and I do. But it appears that most waitstaff speaks some English.

Puntarelle salad. The puntarelle, which literally means "the little tips,"
tastes a bit like Belgain endive.

The address for Antica Trattoria da Pietro al Pantheon is Via dei Pastini, 131, Roma, Italy ( need to verify this address)

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