Get Your Vegan Italian Fix in Little Italy
For vegans, dining out at an Italian restaurant can be like a walk through a culinary minefield.
After successfully navigating their way around the caprese salad and ravioli, they might unwittingly step on the pasta with marinara sauce. The pasta might contain eggs, while the sauce might have butter, explains Pietro Gallo, vegan chef and co-owner, with brother Dario, of Little Italy’s Civico 1845. Vegan diners needn’t worry about hidden dangers at Civico 1845 since they can order from a 100 percent vegan menu created by Pietro Gallo, himself a vegan of four years.
Born and raised in Southern Italy, Pietro cultivated his love of food from time spent cooking with his mother. “For us [Italians], food is everything,” he says, gently placing his palm over his heart. Although he willingly adopted a vegan diet, he admits, “I didn’t want to miss my food, so I started to convert Italian recipes to vegan.”
Four years and countless iterations of recipes later, Pietro’s vegan menu is generating approximately 30 percent of the restaurant’s revenue.
The vegan offerings vary considerably. Some feature straight swaps, such as the oyster mushroom “calamari” whose chewy texture and burst of umami mimic that of squid. Other dishes like the caprese mozzarella showcase juicy heirloom tomatoes and a stunningly creamy rice milk mozzarella. The lasagna romagnola features a rich vegan sausage ragout and seductively creamy bechamel sauce made from 50 percent vegetable broth and 50 percent rice milk. It’s a revelation for many diners. Indeed, Pietro coyly shares a story of one female diner, who after tasting the meatless version, complained to him, “I asked for the vegan version; you gave me the regular lasagna.”
Many of the vegan dishes compare favorably nutritionally with traditional Italian fare. According to Pietro, Civico’s vegan lasagna has a higher protein content and approximately ⅓ fewer calories and fat than its traditional version.
One downside to vegan cooking, however, is the cost. Whereas a chef could order inexpensive ground meat for a typical bolognese sauce, Civico’s chefs don’t have a similarly low-cost vegan option. They also use pricier organic produce for 100 percent of their vegan menu and for 85-95 percent of their traditional menu. Since they make their regular pasta in-house, the risk for gluten cross-contamination is too high, explains Pietro, so they import their gluten-free pasta from Italy. They also use a separate set of cookware for vegan dishes.
Diners appreciate this attention to detail. “We have a lot of people with food allergies [who] feel comfortable here,” explains Pietro. Recently, he had a diner with an allergy to garlic. “For us, from the south [of Italy], [garlic] is in everything!” says a bewildered Pietro, shaking his head. “But it’s no big deal,” he adds. “We cook it from scratch for him.”
Such accommodation has created positive word-of-mouth for the brothers’ two year old restaurant. “We have people from everywhere here to try vegan dishes, from San Francisco and Los Angeles, from Portland and Canada,” says Pietro, and “they ask me to open a location there.”
Will the brothers trailblaze their way across the country offering both classic and vegan Italian cuisine? Pietro, who appears genuinely surprised and humbled by their rapid success, is noncommittal.
His focus, for now, he says, is on the next day at the restaurant, another 16-hour shift, and he couldn’t be happier: “I love it! It’s my passion!” he exclaims.
1845 India St., San Diego