A vegetarian friend, who is not Italian, once relayed to me a conversation she had with some Italian friends about vegetarian carbonara. Despite the fact that you can find recipes for it and that it’s served in restaurants, they argued that it doesn’t exist.
Their thinking was that you can’t have carbonara without the guanciale, because its rendered fat helps to form carbonara’s signature creamy consistency. Without it, you’ve just got pasta with eggs and cheese, not carbonara.
There’s a restaurant in Rome called Rifugio Romano that begs to differ, however, and they’ve even upped the ante by making the carbonara vegan.
And you won’t just find vegan carbonara on the menu, you’ll find all kinds of other Roman specialities in plant-based form: amatriciana, cacio e pepe and gricia, along with “pollo” alla Romana, saltimbocca, and “baccalà”.
Wondering how this fare compares to its meaty, cheesy originals? Then read on, reader, because I’ve eaten at Rifugio Romano and I’ve got all the details!
Rifugio Romano vegan restaurant in Rome
Like the city of Rome itself, Rifugio Romano has evolved over the years. It started out 40 years ago as a tavola calda and pizzeria, then transformed into a restaurant in 2016. It was then that the son of the original owners decided to start offering vegan versions of Roman classics alongside the traditional ones, setting them apart from just about every other restaurant in town. At some point between then and now, they went completely vegan. You can read more (in Italian) in this recent article from Italian daily “La Repubblica.”
At first glance, Refugio Romano doesn’t appear to be a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. I’m stereotyping here, but the things you might expect to see – minimalist design, plants strategically placed around, fresh juices being served – are noticeably absent. It kind of just looks like a typical Roman trattoria, complete with a gladiator helmet atop the “R” in Romano on the sign.
If you get a bit closer, you notice the “Vegan friendly” stickers in the window, and you’ll also noticed that the staff tells walk-in parties that it’s a vegan restaurant before seating them. The third thing you’ll notice is that several people will probably leave after learning this fact (their loss).
We had booked our table ahead of time, which was lucky, because Rifugio Romano was very full for lunch the day we went. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was World Vegan Day (November 1). How accidentally appropriate of us.
A vegetarian friend was visiting and had been looking forward to trying the food for weeks. I’ll admit I was excited too – what the hell would a vegan carbonara – a dish made what it is by animal products – taste like?!
We started with appetizers, including some hummus and veggies that were nice, a salty focaccia that had a great crunch, vegan potato croquettes with creamy vegan “mozzarella”, and, my personal favorite, olive ascolane (hold the sausage, of course).
I normally don’t love olive ascolane, because sometimes, the sausage inside has, what we call in my familect, “nodules” in it. The rest of the world would probably call it “gristle”. No matter what you call it, I don’t want it. Chomping into a nodule can put me off an entire meal, but – joy of joys – vegan “meat” has the flavor of sausage, but no gristle! Sign me up for nodule-free everything, please.
Next came the primi. I didn’t order the vegan carbonara for myself, nor the vegan amatriciana, but my friends did, and I got to taste them.
The vegan carbonara looked remarkably like it’s meaty counterpart, but it had a slightly sulphuric smell that I don’t typically associate with the dish (probably due to the use of kala namak, a kind of salt that contains sulphur compounds and is commonly used in vegan cooking as an egg substitute). Truthfully, I couldn’t believe how close it tasted to a standard carbonara – all of the elements – the creaminess of the eggs and the saltiness of the cheese and guanciale – were there.
The amatriciana was also pretty dead-on, although I will say that the smoky flavor was very strong, much stronger than you would typically find in the dish. I still liked it though.
Jeremy got the “pollo” alla romana – a vegan version of the Roman classic that consists of chicken stewed with tomatoes and bell peppers, and it too was reminiscent of the non-vegan version. I liked the chicken substitute – the texture was very smilier to chicken-chicken.
Perhaps the most visually stunning order was what another friend got – a 3D printed steak that looked somewhat hauntingly like actual meat. I didn’t try it, but he seemed to like it well enough.
So, what’s my final word on the vegan versions of Rome’s best-known dishes? Would I eat them again? Yes, I would. And I’d get a whole order of olive ascolane to myself.