Monday, July 22, 2013

Finalmente! Vegan Italian Yummyness of John's & Salvo's

Finding food that is intentionally Vegan and Italian used to be like searching for a unicorn, or the Loch-Ness Monster, or some other most-likely-non-existent creature. I get it - vegans tend to go towards Thai, Indian, or other delicious cuisines that seem to more naturally lend themselves towards vegan-friendly fare.

As a vegan Italian-American, this always irked me. Sure, looking at the menu in a typical Italian-American restaurant or pizzeria, most things are smothered in cheese or meat. Or it seems the only options are sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic or pasta with garlic and oil (aglio e olio.) While I find these simple dishes to beyond tasty, I understand why they can be overlooked for more exciting-seeming cucumber-avocado sushi, chana masala, general tso's tofu, etc. 

Most vegans don't realize how vegan-friendly authentic Italian and even Italian-American food can be. John's on 12th and Salvo's on York Ave in the Upper East Side are fabulous examples of how to suss out the happens-to-be-vegan goodies of a standard Italian menu.

John's is especially magical because of its intentionally and specifically vegan menu. Located just next door to Angelica's Kitchen, a long-time NYC veg staple, the owners of John's decided to hire a vegan nutritionist after receiving heaps of spill-over customers having difficulty getting a table at always-packed Angelica's. 

John's has oodles of old school NYC charm and boasts a hundred-year history including a stint as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The tile mosaic floors, white linen covered tables, homemade paintings of Italy, and handsomely dressed servers will charm your skirt/pants off. In the back of the restaurant, John's proudly displays their "candle that's been burning since Prohibition." The "candle" is really a giant tower of drippy melting wax with a few wicks alight, providing a unique history and ambiance. 

Now to the meal. The vegan garlic bread at John's is classic, comforting, and soooo worth the next day tummy ache for us gluten-sensitive folks. Buttery (Earth Balance-y) garlicky toasty goodness, mmmmm! It's also affordable at $1.95 a person, and the serving is far from stingy. The bruschetta is a modern take on an Italian tradition, with the crispy toasted crostini being covered in smooth avocado then topped with fresh tomato, basil, garlic, and robust olive oil. At $9.95 it's not cheap, but it is seriously mouth-meltingly delicious. The avocado is subtle enough that it in no way overpowers the bursting flavors of fresh tomato and basil. 

During my most recent visits to John's, I've had the gluten-free pasta with Alfredo sauce and the eggplant parmigiana. The Alfredo sauce is made with coconut cream, which gives it that sweet flavor found in dairy versions of this beloved Italian-American dish. While overall quite tasty, I was disappointed the sauce was on the thin side. When I took my leftovers home, I doctored up the Alfredo sauce with a couple shakes of oregano and a handful of nutritional yeast and it seriously turned out amazing! The eggplant parm was classic and spot on - fresh, flavorful marinara sauce, breaded thin cutlets, and tons of Daiya, all melty and broiled-crispy on top. The entrees aren't cheap at $15-$19, but the portions are generous enough to share or bring some home for lunch.

The desserts at John's really shine. The cannoli are gluten free and the vegan options are traditional vanilla and chocolate. They've been so dreamy each time I've had them, full of all the right flavors and textures. Ketch's favorite dolce, or dessert, is the Panna Cotta, a traditional Sicilian custard. John's is made with coconut and drizzled with a fresh raspberry reduction. The texture is smooth and jell-o-like, just as it should be. Sweet, gluten-free, and rarely ever found made vegan, we finish our meal with the Panna Cotta every time we go to John's. The staff at John's are also extremely helpful, friendly, and most importantly - knowledgable about their vegan menu.

Panna Cotta, vegana!

All the way uptown on 78th and York, Salvo's is a traditional Italian-American pizzeria that just opened on the corner of our block. I'm pretty sure it's owned by some fellas actually from Italy, but they seem to always be hiding in the back or running in and out so its difficult to tell. I'm still trying to do a bit of reconnaissance work and potentially charm them with my Italian speaking skills so they'll make more intentionally vegan food. 

Salvo's has pizza by the slice, dinner entrees, homemade soups, wine & beer, and an espresso bar. They recently also started offering Arancine, the Sicilian rice balls I've featured in a previous post, but not vegan ones of course.

The staff at Salvo's are also super friendly  and happy to answer questions about their ingredients. Sadly, their lentil soup is made with chicken broth, which to me is strange because in Italy it would most likely be made with veggie broth. The best options at Salvo's are a cheese-less pie made to order, with spinach or broccoli on top. The garlic knots are also immensely satisfying and way affordable at $.50 each, but you do have to ask for ones without cheese sprinkled on them (or just dust it off depending on how intense you are about that stuff.) 

The meal Ketch and I are currently obsessed with, like we ate it three times in the past week obsessed, is the glutenfree spaghetti, Sicilian-style. They have other pasta options, but gfree is the way to go for me. I don't even know if I have the words to describe how delicious it is. It's just a basic freshly made tomato sauce with satisfyingly-cubed eggplant chunks, garlic, and fresh basil and parsley. The quality of the extra-virgin olive oil (and pretty much all the ingredients) is clearly very fresh, which enables you to really savor each different element. I know this pasta is legit because it takes exactly like the pasta with eggplant that my Sicilian restauranteur cousins make for me when I visit Italy. The portions are generous and definitely enough for two people. At $8.95 you really couldn't ask for a more delicious deal!

We've also recently had the gfree spaghetti with broccoli, fresh sliced garlic, and olive oil. While fresh and scrumptious, it's no Sicilian eggplant. The sautéed sides of broccoli rabe and spinach are another gem - garlicky, not too oily, and a nice side for a carb-heavy meal. 

Finding food that is both Italian and vegan, out in the world, and not have to rely on myself or friends/family to make it is something I've been yearning for since I first went vegan over ten years ago. It makes me feel whole... And deliciously full! 

Marry Me!! <3



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