In search of great Italian food – without the meat, please

Paganini's antipasto salad; photo courtesy Paganini's Ristorante

Guest blogger Sue Gordon writes a series of articles for Bucks County Taste on eating vegetarian in Bucks County and nearby. Her mission? “To seek out and highlight the best vegetarian options at non-vegetarian restaurants; to encourage our fabulous Bucks County chefs to add more meatless dishes to their menus; and to inspire diners to think beyond the meat.”

This is her second article in the series. Check out her first post about great meatless dishes at Caleb’s American Kitchen.

by Sue Gordon,

Here are six little words that vegetarians love to hear: “I know a great Italian restaurant…” Regardless of the amount of meat on the menu, Italian restaurants generally offer great vegetarian dishes too. And since, according to Google, there are at least 71 Italian restaurants in Bucks County (with many more just over the county lines in Montgomery, Mercer and Hunterdon) that should pretty much guarantee a steady supply of tasty meatless options.

Pasta at DeAnna'sBut before you head for the closest trattoria to chow down on pasta and garlic bread, it’s wise to remember that all Italian restaurants are not created equal. Like everything else in life, there are levels to the game.

Taste, freshness, and creativity matter as much–if not more–to vegetarians and vegans as they do to omnivores. Watery tomato sauce, boring salads and overcooked pasta just won’t cut it.

People like me who have made a conscious choice to give up meat haven’t lost our taste buds, or our desire for complex and satisfying food; we simply don’t want it to come at the expense of our health, or the animals we respect and cherish.

With that in mind, here are two of my favorite Italian restaurants where the pasta is perfect and a good selection of delicious meat-free dishes are fully integrated into the regular menu.

DeAnna’s Restaurant and Bar, Lambertville, NJ

WHY: If you doubt–for even one minute–that DeAnna’s is “The hippest restaurant, in the oldest bar, in the smallest city, in the USA!” (as proclaimed with a wink on the eatery’s website) then you’ve obviously never been there.

DeAnna’s is warm and welcoming, sophisticated yet playful, and nirvana for devotees of homemade pasta like Nonna used to make. And if there is one thing that warms my little vegetarian heart, it’s a plate of tender spaghetti with peppery Arabiata sauce, or melt-in-your-mouth pillows of ricotta gnocchi with a rich, garlic-scented marinara.

DeAnna’s regular menu features a variety of meatless pasta dishes, and if you don’t see something you like, don’t fret. Chef DeAnna is more than happy to create something special just for you.

One of the easiest ways to go meatless in any Italian restaurant is to focus on the appetizer selections, and DeAnna’s is no exception. The eggplant marinated in balsamic vinegar with fresh rosemary, then lightly fried, is stellar (and vegan!). Fried slices of salty Peccorino Romano pair nicely with fresh fruit and an intense balsamic reduction. There are a variety of salads including seasonal salads du jour. And many of the chef’s incredible soups are meat and dairy free.

Apple salad-DeAnna's

WHEN: DeAnna’s is open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5 – 9:30 pm; Friday & Saturday 5 – 10 pm. Reservations are a must on weekends. You can reach them at: 609.397.8957. See their website for address and more information.

BONUS POINTS: The fabulous seasonal and holiday decor in the bar…the inspired craft cocktails and wonderful list of wines by the glass… Locals’ nights (every Tuesday & Wednesday) featuring a 3-course $25 prix fixe menu that changes weekly and always has vegetarian options for each course… Thursday night jazz, and soft vocals by Michelle Wiley every Friday… Last, but certainly not least, the over-the-top delicious desserts made with passion and a discerning eye for presentation by the restaurant’s exuberant co-owner and pastry chef, Lisa Nichols.

Paganini Ristorante and Bar, Doylestown, PA

WHY: Paganini’s Ristorante is a Doylestown institution, In a town where restaurants seem to come and go, chef/owner Raouf Grissa and his wife, Karen, carved out a niche 20+ years ago, and haven’t budged. What’s their secret? Freshness and authenticity.

Paganini’s is the refined, fashionable and unpretentious Italian trattoria you would find tucked away on a side street in Milan or Rome. The food is classic, relying on centuries of acquired knowledge as to which pastas taste best with which sauces. The atmosphere indoors is comfortable and intimate, and when the weather turns warm, the shady outdoor patio is the ideal spot to relax with a glass of wine and watch Bucks County go by.

As a vegetarian, I appreciate that Paganini’s first course menu offers seven meatless plates including an all-vegetable antipasto plate with grilled zucchini, eggplant, marinated fresh mozzarella, roasted fresh peppers and grated carrot salad. Crostini made with homemade bread, topped with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella and baked in the pizza oven to a golden glow, is superb. House-roasted red peppers, marinated in extra virgin olive oil paired with the aforementioned homemade bread, are the practically perfect starter course.

Paganini's antipasto salad; photo courtesy Paganini's Ristorante
Photo courtesy Paganini’s Ristorante

Making fresh pasta and sauce daily is a time-consuming process for any kitchen. Chef Raouf has solved the time dilemma by offering a set list of three specialty pastas each day; one selection (on Monday and Wednesday, two) is always vegetarian.

So, for example, on Monday you can enjoy tender pappardelle with red beets, cream and parmesan; on Thursday, there’s gobbi (similar to gnocchi) in fresh tomato sauce with eggplant. Friday diners can opt for tagliatelle with a simple yet intense pesto made with fresh basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. And in addition to the rotating selections, four of the eight classic pasta entrées available every day are meat-free.

WHEN: Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Visit their website for specific hours. Note: There is one specialty pasta available at lunch each day; all selections are vegetarian except for on Tuesdays.

BONUS POINTS: Pag’s Pub across the street offers delicious wood-oven pizza, both red and white, with many veggie options. Pag’s Wine Bar next door to the Pub offers the full pub menu with the ambience of a rustic French wine bar. It’s the perfect place to meet friends for a drink when you want to actually hear what they are saying.

Have a favorite non-vegetarian restaurant that offers a great selection of meatless dishes? Let us know. Email Sue Gordon at

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