The Rise of Vegan Italian Food in London
A quiet revolution has been taking place on the capital’s Italian dining scene. New Italian venues are springing up that are either entirely vegan, or have separate vegan menus or clearly marked vegan dishes. Existing Italian restaurants, too, have upped their plant-based game, offering significantly more meat- and dairy-free choices. There’s a new emphasis on healthy eating, and no shortage of gluten-free or “allergy-friendly” items.
Amico Bio (which has now closed) was the first vegetarian Italian restaurant in London, but now there are several. Most big-name pizza chains, including ASK and Zizzi now offer separate, comprehensive vegan menus. Italy is renowned for its quality and variety of meats and cheeses, so vegan Italian is a curious phenomenon.
Curious — but perhaps not entirely surprising. Italy has one of the strongest vegetarian traditions in Europe. Fabio Pironti, of Just FAB street food bus, tells us: “Italy is a naturally vegan country. The climate, mostly in the South and in the island of Sicily, allows vegetables and fruits to grow abundantly. Traditionally, in each Italian region, there are many dishes that are plant-based. Panzanella, polenta, pasta, bread, pizza, focaccia, eggplants, bell peppers, pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans), grains (rice, barley, millet, corn, ancient varieties of wheat, buckwheat, oat), seeds, nuts and herbs, all prepared into many different, delicious specialities.”
In fact, some of the earliest vegetarian and vegetable-centric cookbooks were Italian. In the early 17th century, Giangiacomo Castelvetro from Modena wrote one of the first: “A Brief Account Of All Roots, Herbs and Fruit.” Its recipes, such as vegetables wrapped in damp paper, cooked over charcoal and served simply with olive oil and lemon juice, wouldn’t look out of place in today’s modern kitchen.
Then, in 1773, Neapolitan Vincenzo Corrado’s “The Courteous Cook” emphasised vitto pitagorico – vegetarian food – with a special focus on the tomato. He wrote: “Pythagorean food consists of fresh herbs, roots, flowers, fruits, seeds and all that is produced in the earth for our nourishment. It is so called because Pythagoras, as is well known, only used such produce. There is no doubt that this kind of food appears to be more natural to man, and the use of meat is noxious.” Six years later, Antonio Nebbia from the Marche region wrote “The Cook Of Maceratese” (the region he was from), in which he highlighted the importance of local vegetables, pasta, rice and gnocchi, preferring plant-based stocks over meat ones.
In fact, until the early twentieth century, most Italians couldn’t afford to eat meat, so they ate a mostly vegetarian diet, reserving meat for special occasions. Pironti says: “Before the Second World War, in the countryside, they used to keep pigs and chicken for meat and eggs, and goats and sheep for milk and cheese, but the amount of animal products consumed was very limited.” So with its roots in peasant cooking, it’s no wonder the country has such an impressive tradition of meat-free fare.
Fast forward to present day, and Italy has one of the fastest growing rates of vegetarianism and veganism in Europe. Pironti elaborates: “In the last 20 years, veganism has been growing rapidly, following the international wave. Vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants and shops are opening daily in most of the big cities, manifesting a massive interest in vegan, healthy and organic products… Italians are going back to traditional food, which means they once again pay attention to the quality of fruit and vegetables, and seasonality.”
According to a much-publicised 2016 Eurispes report, one percent of the population in Italy is now vegan, with sales of meat declining and vegan products rising. Turin, which has a substantial number of veggie restaurants and hosts a vegan festival, was declared by its mayor last year as “Italy’s first vegetarian city,” with plans to promote veggie food in schools.
London already has a strong history of meat-free dining, so the time was ripe for vegan Italian. Antonio Saponaro, of the Italian Chamber Of Commerce and Industry for the UK, tells us: “The increase of Italian vegan restaurants in London is a natural consequence of three factors: the general positive trend for vegan diets; the conspicuous number of Italians (more than 250, 000 people) living here; and also that Italian cuisine traditionally features a vast variety of vegetarian dishes, so the vegan menu could be seen as one category of this heritage.”
Another factor could be that the choice and quality of vegan “cheeses” made from nuts, beans, grains and vegetables has improved dramatically. Whereas once you’d be lucky to find an indistinct, shrink-wrapped product in a corner of a health food shop, there’s now “mozzarella” made from rice and “parmesan” crafted from cashews. The look, taste and texture of in-house vegan cheeses in restaurants is now superbly sophisticated and often similar to the real thing.
So here’s our pick of the best of Italian vegan in London…
Fed By Water
Located by the entrance of Dalston Cross Shopping Centre, this highly ambitious Italian started as a regular restaurant, before becoming fully vegan over a year ago. Its food philosophy is centred on an “alkaline” Mediterranean diet, healthy eating and environmentally-friendly ingredients. Additionally, its USP is food cooked in purified water -– free, they claim, from impurities such as chlorine and limescale that you might find in tap water.
Fed has recently undergone a revamp and introduced a new menu. There’s mind-boggling choice: expect stunners such as spicy seaweed black risotto with pistachios and samphire, charcoal dough pizza with artichoke cream, savoy cabbage, lemon and homemade “ricotta”, an elaborate star-shaped pizza, and a vegan cheese sharing platter. The food is delicious and imaginative, and the cheeses are a revelation.
Owner Fabio Stefano tells us: “We have developed seven plant-based cheeses that are perfect for pizza or pasta, or just enjoyed on their own. Our latest creation is a dairy-free, cruelty-free ‘burratina,’ which has a soft and creamy cashew texture inside a slightly harder layer of soya ‘cheese’ outside.”
Fed By Water, Unit 1B, Dalston Cross Shopping Centre, 64 Kingsland High Street, E8 2LX
The granddaddy of vegan Italian in London, this smart 20-plus-year-old Chelsea favourite focused on sharing platters at a time when nobody else was doing it, and was one of the first to introduce a vegan menu. This is the place to come to for expertly cooked renditions of classics, such as spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce and wild mushroom risotto, plus Tuscan favourites like ribollita (chunky bean and cabbage soup). The recipes are based on old ones collected from Italian families. Owner Riccardo Mariti was inspired to introduce vegan options after eating in Los Angeles’ “amazing” vegan and raw food restaurants. You won’t find vegan cheeses here — just minimally processed natural ingredients.
Riccardo’s, 126 Fulham Road, SW3 6HU
Located in the heart of Soho, this friendly, cosy modern Italian — which was once the polenta restaurant La Polenteria –- serves gluten-free versions of traditional dishes. All the vegan items are clearly marked on the menu, and include the likes of freshly baked focaccia with vegetables and vegan cheese, and newly introduced sorghum and hemp basil tagliatelle with pesto, tomatoes and almond flakes.
Cristina Carducci from the restaurant tells us that the latter is one of their most popular dishes, adding: “The response has been very positive. The idea for us is to bring together, around the same table, people with different needs maybe, but with the same desire of having a great food experience, with no compromise at all. We see the number of vegan customers constantly increasing… The vegan options are really loved, and not only by vegans, and we are proud of that.”
A new branch has just opened in Mercato Metropolitano market in Newington Causeway.
Leggero Soho, 64 Old Compton Street, W1D 4UQ; Mercato Metropolitano, 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 6DR
Theo Randall at the InterContinental
Former River Café chef Theo Randall is an acclaimed name on the capital’s Italian dining scene, and his swish restaurant in the InterContinental Park Lane specialises in sophisticated rustic fare. Randall has recently introduced a vegan menu, where his signature, unfussy style and high-quality ingredients are allowed to shine.
Here you might find linguine with violet aubergines, or a scrumptious platter of wood-roasted carrots with violet and Jerusalem artichokes, fennel, beetroot, Castelluccio lentils, spinach and peppers. Unlike many other plant-based menus, there’s a liberal use of beans and lentils rather than nut cheeses.
Theo Randall at the InterContinental, InterContinental London, 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane W1J 7QY
When we think about pizza, we usually think about the toppings — but have you considered the crust? Are you adventurous enough to try one made from, or flavoured with, “burned wheat,” kamut (an ancient variety of wheat), spirulina (a type of algae), multi-grain (spelt, corn, amaranth and chia seeds ground together), hemp or brightly coloured turmeric?
Part of Shopping Palace in Fulham, this unique BYOB vegan pizzeria specialises in these healthy and alternative crusts. It boasts professional pizza chefs from an Italian organisation called Associazione Pizzaioli Professionisti, who are researching the best flour mixes for maximum health benefits. The toppings are made from nut cheeses, mock meats and vegetables, and the pizzas are priced according to which base you choose. They come in classic and adventurous flavours — one of the more unusual being “mozzarella” with kale, broccolini, almond ricotta and blueberries.
Pickywops, Shopping Palace, Unit 7, 347 North End Road, SW6 1NN
Inspired by the much-loved street food buses of Sicily, this quirky Hackney venue is a red London double decker converted into a mobile catering unit. It’s retained many of its original features, and has a takeaway window to one side. Seating is on the upper deck, plus in the spacious courtyard outside furnished with benches made from reclaimed wood. Owner Fabio Pironti toured it around the festival scene before parking it permanently.
Pironti’s mother, a long-time vegan, helped establish the menu. You’ll find veganised versions of Italian classics, such as spinach and mushroom-stuffed arancino with vegan cheese-based béchamel sauce, rich lasagne topped with vegan bolognese, and their speciality panelle (chickpea flour fritters). The light yet indulgent tiramisu is not to be missed — and the vegan cream tastes just like the real thing. Ingredients are sourced either locally or from family businesses in Sicily. The outside seating area also hosts events such as comedy nights and movie screenings.
Just FAB, 455 Hackney Road, E2 9DY
Piadina are flatbreads originating from Romagna, where the chef-owner of this Hackney sandwich shop first learned to make them from an 80-year-old woman. He substituted the traditional lard with extra virgin olive oil, and tritordeum for wheat. Tritordeum is a new, natural, non-GMO cereal created by combining wheat and wild barley, which boasts health benefits and gives an attractive golden-yellow hue to baked goods.
Owner Antonio Rucco tells us: “Meat and cheese are typically very common in an Italian panini, but we prefer to focus on popular Mediterranean vegetables such as tomatoes, artichokes, aubergines, olives and more.” Along with these vegetables, the wraps and sandwiches also come filled with seitan-based kebabs and “Sunday roast.”
Piadina Genuina, 251 Wick Road, E9 5DG
Also worth a try…
Unico Deli. This Italian deli chain, located mostly in West London, has made a special effort to sell vegan versions of everything on their menu, including sandwiches and other cold dishes, cakes, coffees and gelato.
Vegan Sweet Tooth. An Italian chef-led cake catering service that regularly tours markets and festivals, Sweet Tooth has opened a temporary pop-up in the back garden of Streatham’s Earl Ferrers pub.
Pomodoro E Basilico. This vegan Italian supperclub-turned-market stall in Brick Lane’s Boiler House Food Hall sells farinata (chickpea flour pancakes), burgers and brownies.
Vegan Yes. Located in Nag’s Head Market in Holloway (with a branch in Brick Lane), this popular stall specialises in Italian-Korean fusion, with unusual dishes such as kimchi lasagne topped with soy milk béchamel.
So, are you ready for the taste adventure of vegan Italian?