Vegan in Florence, Part 3

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Well, dear readers, my adventures in Florence, Italy have come to a close, but I still have one more round of vegan Italian cuisine to share with you all. The last few days of my trip included day trips to the nearby towns of Siena and Fiesole, both of which boast magnificent churches and stunning views of the Italian countryside; a dinner party with my parents, aunt, uncle, and cousin; and a theater jaunt to see the previously on-Broadway show Stomp. And of course…tons of tasty vegan noms. Here are a couple culinary highlights from my final days in Florence:

Il Vegetariano

Via delle Ruote 30r, Florence, Italy 50129

My travel companion Gabe shows off the front of Il Vegetariano.

My travel companion Gabe shows off the front of Il Vegetariano.

I first discovered this 30-some-year-old staple of Florence’s vegetarian scene three years ago when I spent the summer with my aunt, and eagerly returned to introduce this popular, all-organic eatery to my travel companion Gabe. Luckily, from that summer I gleaned the experiential know-how about how Il Vegetariano works, so that I could lead Gabe along in the process. You see, Il Vegetariano’s set-up differs from that of a traditional sit-down restaurant, functioning in a more cafeteria-style manner. Upon entering the restaurant, the diner proceeds past the two dining rooms to greet the kind bespectacled man behind the ordering counter, seated beside a colorful blackboard that lists the daily-rotating menu of small plates, salad bar, entrees, and desserts. The diner puts their order in at the counter, pays, picks up a tray, and stands in the line in front of the salad bar/dessert counter to wait for another kind balding man to grab a freshly made plate from the kitchen, and/or to choose from an array of raw and cooked vegetables to enjoy in a salad. Finally, the diner can choose a seat in one of two mahogany-clad dining rooms with exposed brick walls, or on a covered patio just behind the restaurant.

Dessert case, salad bar, ordering station, and pick-up counter at Il Vegetariano.

Dessert case, salad bar, ordering station, and pick-up counter at Il Vegetariano.

During our visit, Gabe and I opted to enjoy the warm weather and took a seat on the patio. Peckish after meandering around the city all morning, we dove into our bowls of immensely savory brown rice pilaf with roasted artichokes, cauliflower, and parsley. Herbaceous and full-bodied, the pilaf’s flavor showcased just how complex simple vegetables and grains can taste. Of course, considering that Il Vegetariano describes their wide dessert selection as their specialty, Gabe and I simply had to sample a slice of a crumbly tart jam-packed with succulent pears and apricots. Certainly no complaints there, especially when my entire meal cost less than 10 euro.

Brown rice pilaf with roasted artichokes and cauliflower.

Brown rice pilaf with roasted artichokes and cauliflower.

Pear-Apricot Crumble Tart

Pear-Apricot Crumble Tart

Gelateria Perche No!

Via dei Tavolini 19r, Florence, Italy 50122

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Gabe once again serves as my restaurant model.

Venturing out for gelato after enjoying lunch at home became a favorite ritual of mine and Gabe’s during the latter portion of our stay in Florence. While we most often headed to Festival del Gelato due to its close proximity to our apartment, Gabe and I opted on one occasion to sample another of Florence’s famous gelaterias, founded in 1939 and known as Perche No! (aka “why not!”). Upon first entering the small shop, I noticed and hugely appreciated that the gelateria had separated its non-dairy gelatos into a separate cooler, making ordering much simpler for myself and others who avoid dairy. On the day that we visited, Perche No!’s non-dairy flavors included banana, dark chocolate, pear, soy-based hazelnut, soy-based vanilla, strawberry, lemon, and raspberry. Funnily enough, Gabe and I both chose the soy hazelnut and raspberry to satisfy our daily gelato quota. While both gelatos held the exact flavor essence of their respective fruit and nut bases, the soy hazelnut proved less creamy than the rice-based hazelnut that we often enjoyed at Festival (strange, considering that rice milk tends to hold a much thinner texture than soy milk!). Regardless, Perche No! boasts some darn tasty gelato.

The "senza latte" (without milk) case at Perche No!

The “senza latte” (without milk) case at Perche No!

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Miso di Riso

Borgo degli Albizi 54r, Florence, Italy, 50122

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A couple of weeks before arriving in Florence, my mother emailed me to express her excitement that she had discovered a newly opened vegetarian restaurant called Miso di Riso (translated to rice miso) along the main pedestrian street in her neighborhood. As such, I made it a point to accompany my mother to lunch at the eatery during one of my final days in Florence. Brightly lit, filled with verdant potted plants, and boasting a plethora of vibrantly colored décor, Miso di Riso provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere in which to enjoy some macrobiotic-inspired vegan noms.

After ordering, my mother and I check out the dessert case to find such tantalizing creations as two mixed berry tarts, as well one with a semolina crust and chocolate ganache filling. While we opted to head to Festival del Gelato for dessert after our meal, Miso di Riso’s bakery selection definitely impressed me.

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Soon after we had sufficiently ogled at the dessert case, my mother and I received our plates. I chose to sample a savory tart of cauliflower and seaweed with a remarkably flavorful crust, accompanied by a meltingly tender pile of curried cabbage and a lightly dressed salad of gorgeous greens and shaved carrots. As for my mother, she opted for the tofu burger, complete with vegan mayonnaise and coupled with a colorful sauté of mixed vegetables, as well as a salad similar to mine. While both my mother and I “mm”-ed with delight at the features of our plate (the tart and burger) as well as at the impeccably fresh salads, the vegetable side dishes left us unimpressed—though tasty, they struck us as dishes easily made by any home cook. This new restaurant has a great base (and space!) on which to build, but it definitely requires improvement.

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Le Fate

Borgo Allegri 9r, Florence, Italy 50122

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About seven minutes before my mother, Gabe, and I planned to leave to see Stomp, my mother decided to call the restaurant at which we wanted to have dinner, only to find that they had no open tables for the night. Scrambling to find another eatery for the evening, we soon recalled another newly opened vegetarian restaurant that we had passed by on one of our evening passeggiare (walks), called Le Fate (translated to “the fairies”). With moments to spare, we secured a reservation and ran out the door to the theater.

That scramble for another restaurant resulted in one of the best gastronomic decisions of my trip, as the meal that my family and I enjoyed at Le Fate will live on in the Seiter family memory for years to come. True to its name, Le Fate boasts a rather enchanting dining room and a mystical menu: the four appetizers find inspiration in the four elements (earth, water, wind, and fire), while each of the entrees corresponds to one of the twelve astrological signs. Upon noticing the struggles of our English-speaking family to decipher the Italian menu, our charismatic waiter called the chef out of the kitchen to explain in detail every dish—VIP treatment, eh?

As a pre-meal amuse bouche, we each received a small crostini of house-made whole-grain bread spread with what I took to be an artichoke pate, served upon a leaf of soft and lemony sorrel. For an appetizer, the table opted to share a platter of house-made vegan cheeses and fruit compotes. Though I couldn’t discern the exact flavors of each of the cheeses, I could tell by the textures that two of them certainly featured agar-agar seaweed as a binder, while the other two seemed to be aged nut spread-type cheeses. Unfortunately, the latter two lacked the creaminess integral to satisfying cheese, though their flavors proved intensely complex. I have absolutely no complaints about the sweet and expertly spiced compotes, however.

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While I found the vegan cheeses a tad lacking, there was absolutely nothing subpar about any of our entrees. Indeed, every bite (both of my own dish and stolen from the plates of others) offered a new flavor and mouthfeel, providing for a hugely interesting and astronomically delicious meal.

The only diner of our party to order the dish that corresponded to their actual astrological sign, I chose the Vergine (Virgo) plate as soon as I heard the chef say “dates,” “fennel,” and “homemade basil tofu.” The bowl of homemade noodles coated in a creamy, succulent sauce of dates and caramelized fennel that I enjoyed that night still enters my dreams. Providing textural contrast to the silky pasta were leaves of bitter radicchio spread with house-made basil tofu and topped with orange segments and toasted hazelnuts. An inspired dish.

My mother opted for the Gemelli (Gemini) plate, which featured a bowl of fluffy-on-the-inside-crusty-on-the-outside biscuits in three savory varieties, accompanied by a number of spread and toppings: a mild golden chutney of onions and apples, a rainbow-colored salad of minced peppers, a fluffy and cloud-white vegan mayonnaise, oil-marinated heirloom white beans, and quenelles of smooth hummus. Um, wow.

Finally, both Gabe and my father chose the Capricorno (Capricorn) plate: creamy black lentil soup topped with a puree of white root vegetables, served alongside perfectly round balls of falafel with carrot-tamarind spread, and rounded out by a salad of mixed greens and ripe berries. Need I say more?

Though we all found ourselves too full to enjoy dessert, we did end the meal quite enjoyably by speaking with the bubbly owner of the restaurant—a longtime vegan and astronomer who gave us each our horoscopes before leaving. Le Fate’s inviting atmosphere, it’s enormously hospitable waitstaff, and its inspired and tantalizing culinary creations have earned a top spot on my list of most memorable travel restaurants, and I can hardly wait to return during my next trip to Italy (crossing my fingers that it’s soon!).

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Though I probably experienced one of the more perfect spring breaks of my entire life during the past two weeks, I’m happy to find myself back at school and among the community of my on-campus vegan living cooperative. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the spring on Farmers Market Vegan!

Until next time, Ali.

Vegan in Florence, Part 2

Welcome, dear readers, to round two of my special post series for the month of March: “Farmers Market Vegan Goes to Italy”! My last post, reaching you from the art-filled city of Florence, offered you a taste (pun very much intended) of the first of my vegan adventures during my two-week stay in Italy; check it out to fulfill your daily quota of quaint cafes, traditional Neapolitan pizzas, and dairy-free gelato.

In the days following my last post, I and my travel companion Gabe have continued our slow and steady touring of the city, journeying to Piazzale Michelangelo, an elevated square in Florence’s Oltrarno neighborhood that offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city (and the trek up the steep winding roads to the Piazzale will also take your breath away).

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In addition to the sightseeing above and the restaurant exploration below, I also discovered a storefront of the vegan cosmetic company LUSH, which practices ethical product sourcing and actively combats animal testing. Further evidence of a growing consciousness of animal rights in Italy!

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Of course, Gabe and I have also continued our survey of Florence’s vegan scene. Our second round of culinary gems include:

Mercato Sant’Ambrogio

Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, Florence, Italy 50121

Touted as Florence’s second-best open-air market (close behind the Mercato Centrale), Mercato Sant’Ambrogio offers a colorful bounty of fresh produce alongside artisanal bread, marinated jarred veggies, and other goods. Open everyday except Sunday, the market is located just around the corner from my parents’ apartment, and my mother and I pay it a visit on most mornings (in much of Europe, grocery shopping happens on a daily rather than weekly basis like in the U.S.). Spring has arrived here earlier than in the States (not too excited about returning to a snowy New York in a couple of days), and the market accordingly boasts piles of green goodies like artichokes, fava beans, delicate greens, and Romanesco cauliflower alongside early fruits like strawberries and pears. Much of the produce has made appearances in the dinners that I and my mother have cooked at my parents’ apartment, including steamed artichokes served with vegan aioli; platters of roasted veggies; crisp and simple salads; and breakfast bowls of fresh fruit, granola, and hazelnut milk.

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From top right: globe artichokes, zucchini with blossoms, Romanesco cauliflower, enoki mushrooms, mixed lettuce, and fava beans.

La Raccolta

Via Giacomo Leopardi, 2r, Florence, Italy 50121

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The La Raccolta storefront.

The La Raccolta dining room.

The La Raccolta dining room.

A natural foods store complete with non-dairy milks of every ilk, ancient grain bread, dried seaweeds, and a well-stocked bulk section comprises the front of La Raccolta, while through a doorway in the back you’ll find a macrobiotic restaurant in an inviting dining room with walls lined with brightly colored art of various African animals. Along with the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, the grocery section of La Raccolta has provided an almost-daily destination for me while in Florence, fulfilling all of my soy yogurt, non-dairy milk, granola, and apple cider vinegar needs. Due to the pretty steep prices of La Raccolta’s restaurant, however, I’ve only dined there once during this particular stay in Florence—but boy, do I always enjoy my meal there.

Vegan items make up the vast majority of La Raccolta’s impressive menu, complete with whole-grain pasta dishes, seitan scallopini, and macrobiotic-style vegetable dishes accompanied by lip-smacking sauces. Despite such an extensive menu, however, I’ve ordered the same dish on all three of my past visits to La Raccolta (I first ventured there three summers ago when I lived with my aunt for three months): the mixed platter. This substantial plate is composed of 7-10 separate preparations of roasted, steamed, and sautéed veggies embellished with creamy sauces, accompanied by fresh raw salads and more hearty grain and bean dishes. On the platter pictured below, I found (from the top of the plate and working clockwise) a gingery sauté of cabbage and carrots; herb-roasted potatoes; a crisp salad of lettuce and shaved carrots in olive oil and vinegar; a delicately flavored mash of fava beans; parsley-packed orechiette (ear-shaped pasta) with broccoli in a creamy sauce; herb-roasted kabocha squash; steamed purple cabbage in a bright yellow-orange sauce; and steamed broccoli and green cabbage in a tahini sauce. All so simple, yet so lovingly prepared and bursting with freshness.

After such a pleasant savory experience, I couldn’t help but sample one of La Raccolta’s many vegan dolci (desserts): a multi-layered pastry similar to phyllo dough stuffed with almond cream and topped with caramelized pears (known in Italy as mille foglie, or “cake of one thousand sheets”). A transcendental experience.

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Festival del Gelato

Via del Corso, 75r, Florence, Italy

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Gabe and I have made a point of enjoying una coppa of gelato once per day, for no afternoon ritual can beat reveling in creamy, artisanally prepared yumminess that tastes exactly of the real fruit, nut, or other edible that comprises its flavor. One of Florence’s most popular gelaterias, Festival del Gelato finds itself right next to the Duomo, one of Florence’s most popular tourist attractions. In addition to a number of fruit-based gelatos that contain no dairy (including mango, strawberry, and lemon), Festival boasts two rice milk-based gelatos (cappuccino and nocciolia, aka hazelnut), neither of which, as an added bonus, contain sugar! Surprisingly, Festival’s rice milk gelatos prove creamier than those based in soy milk that I’ve enjoyed at other gelaterias, though their fruit-based gelatos tend to harbor an ever-so-slightly more diluted fruit flavor than other gelatos I’ve sampled. I feel like the spectacle of their neon lights make up for this disappointment, though.

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That’s all for this round of vegan Florentine extravaganzas! Look out for my next post on eating vegan in Florence.

Until next time, Ali.

Vegan in Florence, Part 1

Don’t miss your chance to win a prize pack—including free product coupons, a t-shirt, and a vintage-style metal lunchbox—from Tofurky! Be sure to enter Farmers Market Vegan’s latest giveaway by Friday, March 22.

Buongiorno from Florence! As I mentioned in my recent post regarding the connections between eating disorders and digestive complications, you, dear readers, can expect a number of posts relaying my adventures in Florence, Italy during the upcoming weeks. My parents have subletted an apartment here until late April—joining my aunt, a longtime resident of the city—and have graciously invited me to spend my college’s spring break in the art capital of Italy.

In the days leading up to my departure, I encountered many inquiries from friends concerning the availability of vegan food in Florence. To their surprise, I informed them that navigating Italy as a vegan proves incredibly easy—moreso, probably, than navigating many areas of the U.S. For example, a vegan in Italy can always find an animal-free pasta dish, even if that comprises of a simple bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce (it’ll be the best damn spaghetti and tomato sauce you’ve ever had, too). A vegan in Italy can always order pizza with tons of veggies and no cheese. A vegan in Italy can always enjoy gelato, since all fruit-based gelatos contain no dairy or eggs. A vegan in Italy can gorge themselves on every type of bread imaginable. A vegan in Italy can always find the freshest of vegetables—grilled, marinated, tossed in green salads, and served with plenty of olive oil. A vegan in Italy can always find olives. What more could you need?

Gabe's first true gelato experience!

Gabe’s first true gelato experience! Mmm, vegan blackberry and rice-based hazelnut.

In addition to the inherently vegan aspects of Italian cuisine, I’ve also noticed a proliferation of uniquely vegan goods and restaurants in Florence. I know of four well-stocked natural foods stores, all of which boast soy/almond/rice/hazelnut milks, soy yogurt, marinated tofu, seitan, vegan mayonnaise, and animal-free pastries. Five all-vegetarian restaurants have done successful business for at least the past four years, one of which has enjoyed a cult following since 1981. Hole-in-the-wall panini shops have begun advertising vegan sandwiches on their outdoor menu displays. Waiters understand the word “vegan” rather than having to interpret my horribly pronounced “Che sono qui senza latte ni carne?” (“Is there anything here without milk or meat?”). Yes, eating animal-free in Florence poses no difficulty for your average vegan traveler.

During the first couple days of our two-week stay in my parents’ Florentine apartment, my travel companion Gabe and I acclimated ourselves to the city in the most effective and enjoyable manner possible: trekking on foot through the cobbled streets. On most of our excursions, we simply stepped out of the apartment and started walking, map in hand but with no plan. The familiarity of Florence and ability to navigate it surprised me; I hadn’t visited the city since the summer of 2011, yet I remembered the streets, shops, and neighborhoods that I’ve known sporadically since infancy. Our walking adventures led us through the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio (the outdoor produce market near my parents’ apartment), to grocery shop at La Raccolta (my favorite natural foods store and macrobiotic restaurant), across the Ponte Vecchio and to the arsty Oltrarno neighborhood (which literally translates to “the other side of the river”), through the Palazzo Pitti and its Giardino di Boboli (the palace-turned-museum and adjoining gardens), and of course through all of the piazzas that form the basis of Florence’s street layout. A more structured adventure took us through the home of Michaelangelo’s family—known as Casa Buonarotti—led by my talented art historian of an aunt.

My parents and cohorts (Gabe and Connor) getting ready to tour Michaelangelo's house.

My parents and cohorts (Gabe and Connor) getting ready to tour Michaelangelo’s house.

Needless to say, throughout our meanderings, Gabe and I reveled in the artful simplicity of Italian cuisine. Below are a couple of favorite eating experiences from our first days in Florence:

Le Vespe Café

Via Ghibellina 76R, Florence, Italy 50125

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This adorable café, clad in painted Florentine tiles and aqua-blue décor, provided haven for my parents when the WiFi in their apartment died for a week. Offering free internet access alongside a selection of organic and vegan-friendly baked goods, smoothies, juices, sandwiches, and salads, Le Vespe Café provides an ideal homey atmosphere in which to while away the hours with spring break schoolwork. Gabe and I have spent a number of our afternoons working in the café, but have only enjoyed a bit of edible fare, including a berry smoothie and a cardamom-cinnamon spiced latte known as Indian Kofi. I hope to return to Le Vespe during the lunch hour to sample their tofu scramble, homemade veggie burger, tofu salad, and vegan red velvet cupcakes.

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Il Pizzaiuolo

Via de Macci 113R, Florence, Italy 50122

My parents stumbled upon this unassuming, wood-fired pizzeria on the first night of their three-month stay in Florence, only to find out later from my aunt that the Florentines regard its pizza as the highest quality pies in the whole city. On the third night of my visit, Gabe and I joined my parents, my aunt, and my 11-year-old cousin to experience the traditional Neopolitan pizza that the city of Florence (apparently) raves about. Though not a vegan establishment in any sense of the word, Il Pizzaiuolo does offer a number of animal-free pasta dishes (one of which my father enjoyed that consisted of spaghetti, tomato-basil sauce, and capers) and veggie-loaded pizzas. Two pizzas on the menu—the Marinara with tomato sauce, oregano, and olive oil; and the Boscaiola with tomato sauce, mushrooms, artichokes, oregano, and basil—are vegan as-is, while even more pizzas lend themselves well to veganization. For example, I opted for the Vegetariana with tomato sauce, eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers and requested no mozzarella cheese, which the waitress happily obliged. Indeed, the Florentines have judged Il Pizzaiuolo correctly—the tender yet crunchy crust, charred flavor from the wood-fired oven, sweet tomato sauce, and succulent veggies all serve to render Il Pizzaiuolo’s namesake items mouthwateringly delicious.

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Vegetariana pizza with eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and arugula.

Bosciaola pizza with mushrooms and artichokes.

Boscaiola pizza with mushrooms and artichokes.

5 e Cinque

Piazza della Passera 1, Florence, Italy 50125

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I frequented the all-vegetarian 5 e Cinque during the summer that I lived with my aunt in Florence three years ago, and excitedly returned with Gabe for lunch while in the city’s Oltrarno neighborhood. Sporting not but five tables (hence the name) in a brightly lit dining room on a small piazza, 5 e Cinque serves a selection of artisanal yet unpretentious vegetarian dishes (many of which are vegan-friendly) and specializes in the thin, crunchy-on-the-outside-creamy-on-the-inside chickpea flour pancakes known in Italy as cecina (and in France as socca). During our lunchtime visit, Gabe and I both started off with a slice each of cecina, hot out of the oven and brought to our table almost immediately after we ordered. While we waited for our entrees, Gabe and I munched on some soft, salted bread for which we didn’t even get charged (Italians have a habit of bringing to your table supposedly free items like water then adding them to the bill without telling you). To follow, I licked clean a pilaf of farro (an ancient wheat berry) and spicy broccoli served over a succulent puree of winter squash, while Gabe reveled in a steamy bowl of curried vegetables served with a scoop of couscous. Impressively delicious and surprisingly inexpensive, 5 e Cinque holds a special place in my heart.

Cecina, hot out of the oven.

Cecina, hot out of the oven.

Ahh, Italian bread...

Ahh, Italian bread…

Spicy farro & broccoli over squash puree.

Spicy farro & broccoli over squash puree.

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Curried veggies with couscous.

Gelateria della Passera

Piazza della Passera 15, Florence, Italy 50125

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Just across the piazza from 5 e Cinque resides a tiny gelateria that offers house-made, artisinally prepared gelatos of unique flavors. To boot, they feature a blackboard of that day’s available flavors, separated into those con latte (with milk) and those senza latte (without milk, vegan, yay!). On any given day, their vegan selections include a number of fruit-based gelatos (that taste like the essence of fruit packaged in a creamy dessert) as well as at least one almond milk-based gelato. On this particular visit to Gelateria della Passera, I opted to try the pera (pear) and carezza (almond milk base with chamomile) flavors; the former boasted tiny flecks of pear skin while the latter held an intense flavor of marzipan. Divine.

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Stay tuned for my next post of Florentine adventures!

Until next time, Ali.