Because I’m a gloriously inconsistent human being, my diet can swing from reluctant vegetarian to gleeful carnivore to abstemious near-vegan in the blink of an eye.
Throughout years of culinary turmoil, however, one thing has remained unchanged: a near-religious devotion to Parmesan cheese – or, to give it its proper name, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
So imagine my surprise when vegetarian me discovered that my beloved – key ingredient of everything from a sassy carbonara to a can’t-be-bothered pasta-for-one – wasn’t, in fact, vegetarian, thanks to the calves’ rennet used in production. “Well then,” I resolved, determined to keep my cheese, “I’ll just find a brand that doesn’t use rennet.” Turns out there’s no such thing, as Parmigiano-Reggiano is region-protected and legally bound to its traditional recipe.
It made going out for Italian look suddenly rather grim. Many restaurants, as oblivious as I was, liberally dose their one or two veggie options with the stuff. Sure, you could ask them not to – but you run the risk of a bowlful of bland. Most Italian eateries, it must be said, are not known foremost for their vegetarian fare. Which is why every herbivore should know about Amico Bio, a group of organic Italian restaurants in Italy and London that only serve vegetarian and vegan food grown on their own biodynamic farm in Capua, Italy. This is great news for veggies sick of the customary one or two options available in most restaurants. Not such great news if you’re indecisive, like me.
Tucked away on Cloth Lane, the Barbican branch is simple and cosy, with big gridded windows and potted olives outside. Images of farms and vegetables printed on raw wooden panels line the walls. Staff are friendly and attentive, topping up water and always forthcoming with information about the farm and their food.
All the wines are organic and vegetarian (mostly vegan) with the provenance and grape varieties detailed on the menu. Sadly, I’m off the sauce (another dietary caprice) or we would have jumped straight in: organic Italian wines are, I’ve noticed, reliably excellent. But we opt for softs, and are soon graced with a perky little blueberry and rosehip juice and an aromatic orange and prickly pear.
For starters we settle on some Arancini (£5) and an intriguing rice milk mozzarella with grilled aubergines and cherry tomato salad (£7.75). Vegan mozzarella? You heard me. And it doesn’t disappoint: smothered in fresh basil pesto, it has a delicate salty flavour not at all distant from its buffalo-milk cousin. Just don’t expect the kind of ropey-ness you get from the dairy version; rice can do many clever things, but textural stretching is not one of them.
The success of our rice cheese is let down a little by our rice balls. The shell is deliciously crisp, but the rice predominates with surprising blandness. The (bovine) mozzarella and peas are barely detectable, and the whole dish would have been much improved with a little more stock. We’re quite happy we’re sharing because neither of us is equal to a full serve.
Mains are plentiful and difficult to decide. The menu changes daily, but there are a few staples. We settle on two of them: a ravioli of smoked cheese and sundried tomatoes with cherry tomato and basil sauce (£12), and a seasonal vegetable tempura with sweet and sour sauce (£9.50). With the ravioli comes the first revelation of the night: kinara, a parmesan-esque cheese from the Grana family, made with vegetable rennet (extracted from an alpine thistle flower, I’ve since learn’t). It’s tangy, mature, and wonderful. That said, we barely need it, because the ravioli pillows are a sharp, salt-smoky punch of flavour, which would be overwhelming if it weren’t for the gently juicy tomato sauce on top.
The tempura is an impressive structure of batter-y batons balanced on a wooden board. “I feel like I’m playing Kerplunk,” my companion observes as he attempts to remove a piece without collapsing the whole pile. The crisp, lightly salted bites of spring onion, red pepper, carrot, pumpkin and zucchini are delicious, but again we’re glad we’re sharing. It’s the kind of dish that would work better as an entree, and £9.50 is a bit of a stretch for what is essentially a pile of chopped vegetables.
With dessert comes the second revelation of the night: my fruit tart (£6) is served with a vegan pumpkin ice cream that might have been fetched off a cotton-candy cloud. It’s light, fragrant, and so full-flavoured you don’t even notice it’s not dairy. The tart itself is rendered almost uniformly bitter by a heavy dose of powdered cinnamon. I can’t tell if it’s intentional – to play off the sweetness of the ice cream – but I would struggle to eat it without. If a negroni ever took fruit tart form, this is it. Meanwhile my partner’s ordered a whole serve of assorted ice creams (£5) and I’m having a terrible time trying to get at it because it’s so good he won’t share.
Amico Bio do a few things fantastically well. Vegans (and others) will delight in their cheese and ice cream, and there are plenty of gluten-free options as well (another welcome departure from typical Italian cuisine). The service is perfect: friendly and attentive without undue formality. Although the prices are high for a reason – organic food comes at a premium, especially when it’s brought in from Italy – the overall standard of dishes is nearly as variable as my dietary habits. I hate to fault them because they really are all heart, but the final product doesn’t always match the price tag. That said, play to their strengths – cheese, ice cream, and lots of sharing – and you can be sure of some solid, square Italian fare with precisely zero animal involvement.
words Marion Rankine