A Vegan Italian Summer: Q+A with Nadia Fragnito of The Vegan Italian Kitchen

Nadia Fragnito of The Vegan Italian Kitchen is an in-demand vegan Italian expert. She is the author of Discovering Vegan Italian and a regular guest on Channel 10’s Freshly Picked with Simon Toohey.

Now, Nadia is about to release her second cookbook titled A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy: recipes and culinary adventures. It’s a combined cookbook and travel guide from her time spent exploring southern Italy and its plant-based cuisine.

Photo credit: Nadia Fragnito

Though, what makes Italian vegan food so special? In particular, what makes vegan Italian food from the south so spectacular? Nadia has a deep passion for vegan Italian food that comes from a place of love. She has a deeper connection to the south because her family originated there.

In her interview with Fire & Tea, Nadia can’t help but re-live her experiences from travelling through the south of Italy for two months. It’s on the roads less travelled that gave her the impetus for a colourful, soulful cookbook spanning many kilometres, 70 recipes and short essays filled with emotive story-telling.

Whereabouts in the south did you travel to? How long were you there for?

“We travelled to the regions of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily. Starting in Nocelle on the Amalfi Coast and ending in Palermo, Sicily. Altogether we were in the south for two months.”

From your experience, what makes southern Italy so different from the north?

“A lot of people comment on the cultural differences, but my point of reference is the cuisine! In the south, there are more opportunities to eat traditional plant-based dishes. You can pop into most places, like restaurants and cafés, and find ‘accidentally vegan’ options. In the north, there are generally lesser options, unless you go to a dedicated vegan eatery (which there is a good number of, especially in Turin).”

Views of the Amalfi Coast (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
Did you get a chance to explore lesser known parts of the south, e.g. the Aeolian Islands?

“Fortunately we didn’t go to the Aeolian Islands, as there was a massive volcanic eruption at the same time we were on the mainland of Sicily! But yes, we explored towns that were off the tourist trail, where little English was spoken. We visited my family in the town of Molinara (Campania region, 90 kilometres inland from Naples) and I’m pretty sure no tourists ever go there! We also stayed a couple of nights in the hills of Campania, on a beautiful property in Frasso Telesino. These places felt so intimate and made for a more authentic and memorable experience.”

A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy: recipes and culinary adventures is your second book. It captures your travels from the region and you’ve created vegan recipes as a result of those travels. Why did you decide to write a book that combines recipes and a travel guide?

“Food and experience are so intrinsically entwined – where there is food, there is also story. It was a desire of mine to share a full sensory experience of the places, the people and the food.

I also feel such dismay when reading Italian culinary travel cookbooks with pages filled with animal carcasses. I really wanted to offer something that celebrated plant-based food in all its glory, and create a safe space within the pages where you wouldn’t have to cringe or look away from the cruelty.”

Stuffed capsicums (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
You say that ‘Italy is a special place that speaks to a person’s soul’. Why do you think we have such a hunger for food travel and how does southern Italy speak to your soul, personally?

“When we travel, we open up to a full experience of the local culture, and that usually includes enjoying the cuisine. And the beauty of this is that we get to take this experience home with us in the form of memory. So whenever I smell the scent of freshly brewed coffee or taste that ripe tomato – it takes me back to Italy. I love food travel – it’s so sensory.

More personally, southern Italy is where my family is from. So, even though I love the beauty of the north, there is a deeper connection to the south.”

Sant’Agata de’ Goti (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
Can you share one particular travel story from the south that resonates with you above all other experiences there? Or, was there one regional town that particularly stood out for you?

“I find it hard to pick one because I have a montage of special moments. The vegan feast my cousin made for us in Molinara; digging into an almond or coffee granita in beautiful Taormina; the house-made taralli in a small restaurant in Sant’Agata de’ Goti; the feeling of ‘home’ at the hilltop agriturismo Villa de’ Luccheri; picking heirloom vegetables on the slopes of the Amalfi Coast; taking la passeggiata in the ancient streets of Matera; learning to make orecchiette and sagne torte in Lecce; dipping my toes in the Ionian Sea; scoffing pane e panelle (chickpea fritters) for the first time in Palermo. And of course the people we met. You can find beautiful moments in every region, in the most unexpected places.”

Almond Granita (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
While in southern Italy, did you get a chance to jump into anyone’s kitchen and learn some new culinary skills specific to the region?

“One of the best skills I learned was when I took a pasta class in Lecce, Puglia with The Apulian. We learned how to make three unique types of regional pasta shapes (traditionally egg-free) all the while learning about the region. It was the perfect way to gain new skills and something I will remember for life.”

A traditional moka pot (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
While you were in southern Italy, did you still get a thorough taste of the culture through vegan food? Was there ever a compromise in flavour and representation of the local culture?

“The best thing about southern Italy is that you really don’t feel like you ‘miss out’ as a vegan – so much of the traditional cuisine is rooted in plant-based ingredients. Of course there is still plenty of meat and dairy but it doesn’t dominate. So you can find great vegan options in every region. If you do your research, you can know ahead of time what local dishes are vegan so you have an arsenal of dishes ready to eat when you arrive in the region or town.

However, I was a little despondent on the Amalfi Coast – there is a lot of seafood, for obvious reasons. So we stuck to really simple dishes like Spaghetti Pomodoro and Pizza Marinara (pasta and pasta with tomato) or grilled vegetables. But you can get around that by cooking for yourself at your accommodation or finding a great BnB that will cook vegan for you, like Villa Antica Macina which even had an organic vegetable garden (you can read about it in the book!).”

Fresh orecchiette (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
How did the locals respond to you being vegan?

“In a lot of places, veganism is a familiar concept, and you will be accommodated in most restaurants and eateries, even if it’s just a simple dish. But there are some smaller towns, as well as older generations of Italians, who aren’t familiar with veganism – so a little explanation is necessary.

If I was ever met with a raised eyebrow about not eating meat or cheese, it wasn’t long until I was peppered with questions about what exactly could I eat and how I could best be fed! Italians are feeders. And they want to be able to provide you with good food. So my approach was to express how happy I was to eat, say, pasta with broccoli or pan-fried vegetables or bruschetta. The host was then satisfied that I was eating well. That’s important; you don’t want locals or families to feel offended, you want them to know they’ve been hospitable which is a high priority for Italians.”

What is one ingredient that encapsulates the south and features frequently in A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy? Why is this ingredient so special to you and the book?

“Tomatoes are always at the apex of southern Italian cooking. Fresh, pureed, cooked, preserved, sun-dried. Most of my cooking will involve tomatoes whether a little or a lot. My family grew tomatoes, we had glasshouses. You could say I was raised on them! However, that said, other vegetables such as zucchini, capsicum, eggplant and potatoes feature a lot; as does pasta of course.”

Nadia cooking with her favourite ingredient – tomatoes! (Photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
In the book, there are 70 dishes. How long did it take you to create, test and refine these dishes? How long did this book take you in total? It must’ve taken you quite a while!

“I started the brainstorming stage at the beginning of 2020 and then followed with the recipe testing and the book design. So it took me two years. However, I was planning the book before then, with our 2019 trip to Italy.”

What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy?

“I want them to learn about the wondrous plant-based cuisine of the south and be inspired by how vegan-friendly it is. And hopefully that will motivate people to put southern Italy on their travel list one day. I also want readers to be whisked away, to feel the spirit of the south within the pages and in turn the recipes they can recreate in their own homes.

At the very heart of the book is love; my love for vegan food, my love for southern Italian food, my love for my heritage and for Italy. The love of cooking and eating; I guess I want it to open hearts.”

Zucchini and Tomatoes (photo credit: Nadia Fragnito)
You’ve also had a bumper year in 2021 when you and some of your previous recipes featured on the television show Freshly Picked with Masterchef contestant Simon Toohey. What did this mean to you, that your vegan Italian recipes were being featured on mainstream commercial television in Australia?

“Oh there’s nothing like getting into a studio with your own recipes in front of a film crew to really test if you’re confident with your own cooking! I’ve been so grateful for the opportunities – it’s so validating and lots of fun. I also feel the same way when someone makes a recipe from my cookbook or blog and tells me that they loved it or it reminds them of the traditional dish. That’s the best feeling.”

What are your plans for 2022? You are launching A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy but are there any other bold plans for you that you’d like to share?  

“The focus for the start of 2022 is to launch the new cookbook and share it with the community. I’ve spent so long in front of a computer, behind the camera or in the kitchen that I’m craving real human connection. After that, well, we’ll see how these restrictions ease up! More events, classes and more fun projects. Eventually some Italy trips, though when that will be I’m not sure!”

A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy: recipes and culinary adventures is available from January 15, 2022 on Nadia’s website. You can pre-order your copy now at The Vegan Italian Kitchen website for AUD$59.99. If you pre-order and you’re in Australia, you’ll receive VIP access to five online recipe tutorials from the cookbook featuring Nadia. This offer is available for pre-order customers in Australia only.

The book will also be released in Australia in selected bookstores and online from January 18.

Nadia is launching her new book in-person at a supper club event on Thursday March 10 from 7pm to 10pm at 113Eatery. Cost is $99 per person and includes a glass of sparkling on arrival, three-course vegan Italian feast, a complimentary goodie bag and book signings with Nadia. To learn more and to book tickets, visit the Drool website

If you’d like to read more about Nadia’s vegan Italian food journey, then check out her first interview with Fire & Tea here.  

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