Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Piatto secondo

For food gourmands, Italy is a world-class destination. For centuries, Italian chefs have been making wondrous dishes from the simple ingredients plucked from the land or snagged from the sea.

But the chefs in many of your fine Italian food establishments are absolutely flummoxed by one breed of diner, the vegetarian. In much of central Italy, the chef's answer to the vegetarian menu is to serve lamb. And so, dining with a vegetarian in Italy is always an enormous sense of amusement for me, the unapologetic omnivore. Last month, I was at a wedding in the foothills of the Alps. I was seated at a table full of vegans. A perplexed wait staff decided the best thing to do was to send the entire table heaping plates of seafood all day. It was one of the happiest days of my life. At my next Italian wedding, I may try this vegan trick.

But if you are a vegeterian traveling through the inland, mountainous regions, you're out of luck. The only dish guaranteed to be senza carne is the dolce. This was the experience last weekend at Da Priori, a local favorite in the hilltop town of Monte San Martino. They specialise in gut-busting meals of pasta and meats cooked over wood. The portions are always Flintstone size. Luckily, for our vegan guest we were able to convince the kitchen to whip up a second round of their signature pasta, Pasta Ortica, a green tagliatelle dish made of Marchigiani weeds and nettles.

But the sad fact for vegans is that much of central Italy's incredible cuisine is based on good old fashioned red meat. And thus, the vegan would either have to be spiritually converted on the spot or miss out on such delicacies as the stinco (leg of lamb), cinghiale (boar meet), rabbit, pigeon, deer and veal, not to mention the sausages, prosciutto, capocollo and porco. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

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