I am a vegetarian (granted, a relatively new one who does still eat seafood). Before coming to Rome, I was anxious that it was going to be difficult for me to find food in restaurants to accommodate my dining restrictions. I mean, Italians have a reputation of loving their meat. It is a reputation that I have found certainly holds true, and for good reason. Italian cold cuts are some of the best quality meat products in the world. Mortadella (smoked ham similar to bologna) may be gross in the United States, but according to my meat eating friends, it is fabulous in Italy. In almost every specialty food shop there is cured meat hanging from the ceiling. You find this in several restaurants as well. Meat is something Italians take pride in.
Despite this reality, it is not impossible to be vegetarian in Rome. In fact, it has started to become easier. There are a few health food stores and specialty shops around that sell alternatives to meat, like tofu and tempeh, and some grocery stores have even started carrying them as well. The fresh produce available at markets is overwhelming, making it super easy to prepare vegetarian meals at home. Even restaurants are generally vegetarian friendly. At the very least there is usually one pasta dish that is meat free. In every pizzeria, there are several options that don’t even have cheese on them making those options full on vegan.
While it is possible to be vegetarian in Rome, there is a point of caution that needs to be mentioned. The concept of vegetarianism is different from how it is in America; in Rome the definition is not as strict. For example, my first weekend here, we were brought to a special lunch with a separate menu prepared for vegetarians. This “vegetarian” menu included fish. Where as in the United States, it is assumed that a vegetarian does not eat meat; in Rome the opposite is assumed. This was proven to be the case once again when I ate lunch at an all vegetarian restaurant. Back home, a menu at a vegetarian establishment would not contain seafood, so I was not expecting to find any on this menu either. However, two of the dishes I tried surprised me by containing salmon. Since I still eat seafood, it was not a problem for me, but for stricter vegetarians, it is something to be aware of.
At other restaurants, I have asked if my dish could be prepared without the meat and was told it would not be a problem only to see them literally take the meat out of my bowl before serving it to me. In Rome, this is no different than if the meat was never in it at all. Other times, I have just been judged or seen as odd for being a vegetarian. When I have told some waiters that I do not eat meat, they have looked at me as though I had three heads. This is by no means the end of the world and can actually be amusing once you get used to it.
Ultimately, the important thing is to be aware that the American meaning of the word “vegetarian” differs from Roman meaning. As long as you are prepared and willing to take a few extra precautions, it is possible to eat meat free in Rome and still enjoy the marvelous food that Italy has to offer.