By Eleonora Baldwin
he average Italian is a carnivore, Romans in particular. Veal and beef are the norm as main courses and in pasta sauces. But the city also has plenty of vegetarian options, mainly because mainstream Italian cuisine, which hasn't changed much since the 19th century, leans heavily on vegetable, pasta and dairy products.
Driven more by poverty and availability than conscious choice, traditional regional recipes depended more on what the land produced than what animal pens had to offer. Meat and fish were costly items, usually reserved for nobility or higher social status, and often downright rare for non-hunters. Hence the birth of polenta, pizza, gnocchi, vegetable pies, the vivid selection of cheeses, hearty soups and affordable preparations that relied on leftover bread, beans and potatoes: basic sustenance that has trickled down in history into our every-day meals.
So vegetarians visiting Rome don't need to worry. Here's a shortlist of reliable vegetarian, vegan and ovo-lacto friendly havens I've dined in lately.
Arancia Blu, among Rome's pioneer vegetarian destinations, has moved from its original San Lorenzo location to a larger, more comfortable venue in the Prenestina suburbs. Equipped with a lovely outdoor patio that welcomes pets and kids, the nifty à la carte vegetarian menu is also very popular with meat people, helped by a 600-bottle wine list, homemade stuffed pasta dishes, soups, salads and a mile-long cheese menu.
I pretend to be vegetarian for their leek and almond quiche, the mouthwatering tortelli with Parmigiano filling, dressed with watercress pesto and topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) chips. Leave room for dessert. ¶ Arancia Blue. Open daily from 5 p.m. (high tea); aperitivo and cheese/champagne tastings at 7 p.m.; dinner at 8 p.m. On weekends open for lunch only. Via Prenestina, 396e. Tel. +39.06.44.54.105.
The Beehive Café is a dreamy corner of peace which makes you forget you're two blocks from zoo that is the Termini train station. It's part of the eco-conscious and welcoming Beehive Hotel, a sustainable mix of budget hotel and upscale hostel. Owned by a lovely American couple, the hotel's kitchen offers daily breakfast graced by organic coffee and homemade bread, pancakes, omelets and bagels; plus weekend brunches, and evening vegan buffets three nights a week, all with healthy, organic food. You can come for that, or simply choose to sit in the garden, sipping herbal tea and surf the web thanks to the free Wi-Fi. ¶ The Beehive. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Via Marghera, 8. Tel. +39.06.4470.4553.
Bibliothé is a peaceful vegetarian hub that draws indophile yogis, artists, poets, and travelers wishing to find a quiet space for reading at teatime. It serves 100 percent organic Ayurvedic cuisine (a holistic Indian approach to dietary needs). Guests are treated to candied ginger and caffeine-free tisanes; and the menu showcases dishes made with all manner of cereals, legumes, and fresh seasonal produce. I come for the tasty spelt crepes, the wonderful chutneys, homemade yogurts, and vegan desserts. ¶ Bibliothé. Closed Sunday. Via Celsa, 4 (Pantheon). Tel. +39.06.678.1427.
Il Geco Biondo ("The Blond Gecko") is an organic vegetarian eatery not far from Ponte Marconi that specializes in pasta dishes, salads and vegan desserts. It offers a wide selection of handmade gnocchi, lasagna, strozzapretiand stuffed ravioli, dressed with original sauces and condiments. Between the opening salad and the main dish, there's always a surprise, whether a protein dish, a veggie pâté, a bowl of soup, a mini cereal salad, or a side dish sampler. ¶ Il Geco Biondo. Open for dinner only, closed Sunday. Via G. Cardano, 105 (Marconi/San Paolo). Tel. +39.06.557.1048.
Margutta RistorArte is a very posh vegetarian restaurant with outdoor seating a stone's throw from Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. All is homemade here (including bread, desserts and pasta) and popular menu items include a veggie tart with smoked provola cheese and zucchini in mint marinade; risotto with strawberries and Gorgonzola; and springtime asparagus and hard-boiled egg cous cous salad. There's a four-course vegan menu, affordable buffet lunch and three brunch options, according to calendar. ¶ Margutta RistorArte. Open lunch and dinner, seven days a week, year-round (except Christmas Day). Via Margutta, 118. Tel. +39.06.3265.0577.