Alys Meiriol is an award-winning writer whose work has been published in national newspapers and literary magazines, and broadcast on RTÉ.
She has spent her adult life campaigning for animals.
• Going Home By Water (2009)
• Eden (2012)
• Vetopia (2014)
• Providence and Other Stories (2015)
Italy is a country full of contradictions. It was the first European nation to legislate for the specific rights of companion animals, yet hosts an annual slaughter of over five and a half million wild birds as they try to migrate across its borders. It loves its dogs; tries to neuter and rehome its stray cats here through an association called Dingo; and yet abruptly stopped the long tradition of feeding pigeons in St Mark’s Square. It applauds veganism (“Brava!”) yet offers such stomach-churning delicacies as ‘spleen of veal’ as restaurant specials. But, with a few caveats, it’s easy being vegan in Venice.
Venice, perhaps more than most Italian cities, is hostage to the wants of tourists. Also, as a maritime city, its reliance on fish and crustaceans is huge, so be prepared for seafood holocausts to greet you from market stalls and restaurant displays, which can spoil an otherwise perfect jaunt along the Grand Canal. It is easy to stray into the fish market at the Rialto (the Pescheria), which might leave you in need of something stronger than a prosecco. At least the main slaughterhouse has been moved from Venice itself, but be ready to be confronted with large parts of animal torsos in supermarkets and other shops. Italians do not have the British squeamishness about what lies behind the food they eat.
Coincidentally, many of the stone bas-reliefs on buildings and wellheads depict animals or birds eating one another in ancient, often religious, symbolism. But there are also some tender statues of human love for dogs (e.g. St Mark's Square, the memorial to the airman in the Biennale gardens); and of course the life-size bronze lions biting through their chains on Vittorio Emmanuele’s statue on the Riva degli Schiavoni – a political statement that has resonances for defenders of animal rights everywhere. For a number of years there has been a steadily growing vegan movement in Italy – the headquarters of the Italian Vegan Society were even based for a while near Venice, on the mainland. Staff in specialist shops and even people in the street seem to have a good understanding of what it means to be vegan, at least in terms of diet. But unfortunately this has not yet filtered down to hotels and restaurants, where many of the staff are simply bemused or uncomprehending about the concept.
If you’re planning to eat out in Venice, there’s a large choice of pasta and pizza-based dishes, though it’s best to be careful when ordering – once, a plate of four baby octopi appeared at my elbow, which the waiter swore I’d asked for (I don’t think I had!) – to this day I worry that a mispronunciation or a careless gesture at the menu led to those pitiful deaths. Many otherwise solely vegetable dishes contain cheese, but Parmesan (parmigiana) is usually offered separately and therefore easy to avoid. If you substitute another vegetable instead of cheese on your pizza, you might be charged extra. And as with anywhere, it’s best to double-check that when it arrives, your pizza isn’t inadvertently covered with mozzarella. Most eateries are very apologetic when this happens and replace the meal immediately with a fresh one, rather than just scraping off the cheese and returning the original as you might have experienced in other places. It can also be safer to a) explain in full what a vegan doesn’t eat b) ask the waiter/waitress to check with the kitchen exactly what is in a particular dish. They are usually happy to do this, even at the busiest times.
Beware the menus too – ‘V’ for vegetarian (and therefore sometimes vegan) does not always mean animal-free e.g. fish stock can be an ingredient – as usual, it’s best to check with the waiting staff. And watch out too for those innocent-looking bread sticks served with every meal – some of them contain pork fat! Luckily, they usually come in packets, so a quick read of the ingredients, that familiar vegan pastime, can avoid dietary disaster. (It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, in Italy, most vegetable dishes are cooked in olive oil rather than butter or margarine as in the UK.) Compliments to the chef on departure are diplomatic even if sometimes not strictly deserved, and may even encourage more imaginative menus in the future!
A new fully vegan restaurant opened in Venice two years ago: La Tecia Vegana. It’s situated in a quiet corner of Dorsoduro and is well worth seeking out for its generous portions and reasonable prices. Catering for gluten-free diets too, it’s open for lunch and evening meals and has outside seating for warmer days. The desserts are especially delicious!
The popular La Zucca near San Giacomo dell’Orio, is just one restaurant which, though definitely not vegetarian (as the owner is keen to point out), serves many vegetable-based dishes which are sometimes vegan. As menus usually change to reflect seasonal availability, it's worth checking the menus or boards outside premises to see if there's something suitable that day. The website of the fantastic Italian vegan food firm Valsoia says that Italy holds first place in Europe for the number of vegetarians. In time, this might one day spread to vegans with a corresponding rise in eateries to serve them as is happening elsewhere. In catering, demand definitely does create supply!
For a lighter snack in a bar or trattoria, there are various choices (nb ‘toast’ means a filled and toasted sandwich rather than plain toasted bread) – for example, the ubiquitous bruschetta is usually vegan (toasted ciabatta covered with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil). Vegans can always ask for bread and salad (which is more exciting than it sounds). At the time of writing, most cafés and hotels don’t offer soya milk and often have no idea what it is, even though the main Italian TV channels carry adverts for it as well as other soya products and most of the main supermarkets stock it. It’s always worth asking, though, on the principle of demand leading to supply. It can be hard to ascertain if the wine you’re drinking with your meal is vegan, much as it is anywhere. But a Spritz (the Venetian early-evening drink of choice) made with prosecco and Aperol could be OK - make sure you specify Aperol and not Campari, though, as the food colouring (E120) used in the latter is definitely not vegan.
After your meal (or before it), you might wish to stroll along Venice’s byways with an ice-cream. Many gelaterie now have vegan and gluten-free options. The former ultra-vegan-friendly Gelateria Al Sole near the San Basilio vaporetto stop on the Zattere has changed hands but still offers vegan lemon ice-cream and other flavours. Happily, the new owner seems committed to maintaining its vegan-friendly tradition and is planning to introduce even more flavours and also several fruit granitas in the near future to increase the vegan options. He also still provides recyclable cups and spoons as an alternative to the non-vegan cones.
If you’re thinking of self-catering (cheaper and of course more reliably vegan), there are plenty of shops offering suitable ingredients and/or chilled or frozen vegan food as well as ready meals. Although Italians may enjoy all kinds of meat and fish (in Venice, especially fish and other marine life - be prepared for the distressing sight of pre-packed starfish in the same display as soya burgers), they also eat plenty of salads, vegetables and fruit, and the array of such delights in supermarkets and smaller shops make Venice something of a vegan paradise. There are many small greengrocers in the side streets that sell an amazing diversity of fruit and vegetables while the famous vegetable market, the Erbaria on the banks of the Grand Canal, is a sight to gladden any vegan’s heart; and there is also the much-photographed and locally popular vegetable barge at San Barnaba.
If you’re looking for precooked food, try the Coop (Piazzale Roma) or Conad City (Zattere). Between them, they stock clearly labelled items (100% Vegetale or Certificato Vegan) such as soya, seitan or millet burgers in the chill cabinets (Conad City – look out too for the large cartons of hearty soups by the salad section ); vegan meals and patties/rissoles/other savouries (Coop and Conad); soya milk (expensive and usually sweetened – I found the Coop’s unsweetened Sì Soia to be the best and cheapest, though familiar names are often to be seen e.g. Provamel and Alpro, though again, these are more expensive than you might be used to); and there is a range of soya-based products from ‘Valsoia’ - 100% Vegetale – including yoghurts (Coop) and ice-cream (Conad plus own brand and occasionally Coop). There are other branches of the Coop near San Giacomo dell'Orio as well as the Rialto and in Giudecca, but these are much smaller and their stock is limited, though they do have soya milk and other vegan foodstuffs. Vegan margarine can also be found in the Coop, Conad and the specialist shop Naturalia (near Piazzale Roma), and most vegan foods are also ‘biologica’ i.e. organic. The Coop’s Vivi Verde range is clearly marked – all products are vegetarian and organic, but not always vegan – best to check the labels/ingredients.
A special mention for the supermarket Conad who, since my last visit, seem to have really embraced the vegan market. Not only in their own brand of vegetarian/vegan foodstuffs (Verso Natura VEG), but in household cleaning products as well as things like shower gel and handwash (Officina del Mugello is an inexpensive but very good toiletries brand).
Aqua Altra, near Campo Santa Margherita, has an unusual stock of dried and tinned vegan foodstuffs, snacks, sauces and herbal teas as well as fair trade goods. The delicatessen La Bottega del Gusto sells soya and rice milk as well as a selection of dried pulses and grains. The aforementioned Naturalia is a haven for vegans, offering familiar staples such as soya milk and soya cream as well as unusual cheese substitutes. These are often based on rice and include a mozzarella substitute (plain and smoked) and a delicious sour cream cheese substitute (Soyananda). They also stock sausages, burgers, dried foods etc. As with anywhere, unfamiliar products are perhaps best checked by labels, and the ingredients are often helpfully given in several languages including English. But some form of dictionary or ’phone app while shopping does make life easier.
Le Spighe on Via Garibaldi proudly claims to be the only establishment in Venice where you can find freshly-prepared-in-house salads and rissoles etc. to take away – most are vegan, some contain cheese, but the owner is quick to point those out. She is also very conscious of the health benefits of a vegan diet and prepares her food accordingly. It’s perhaps best to call here early in the day as the choice can be limited after the lunchtime rush. Cookery courses are also sometimes available, catering especially for those on restricted diets or those interested in the health-promoting aspects of food.
For chocaholic vegans, it’s easy to find 100% animal-free dark chocolate in shops and supermarkets. Their own brand Nocciolato Fondente with hazelnuts from Conad City is especially delicious and good value for a very large bar. Other sweets are also available (eg. fruit-based pastilles and liquorice nibs from various shops) – as usual, a quick perusal of ingredients can reveal unexpected delights. Aqua Altra has vegan chocolate bars too, and chocolate sweets. Conad City is just one supermarket that stocks animal-free biscuits as well as plain chocolate drops if you feel like making your own.
With new air travel restrictions, the vegan traveller might be in need of toiletries and even medicines. Oddly, the concept of cruelty-free toiletries can be strange, even to those shops that stock them, so it’s often necessary to read the labels yourself. In this way, sometimes quite surprising treasures can be discovered. Naturalia, of course, stocks a very large range of vegan shampoos, shower gels, hand creams etc. , many of which sport familiar names.
Aqua Altra now carries an expanded choice of vegan toiletries from different firms, some of which are also organic.
The Farmacia Alla Cerva D'Oro near San Basilio is also homeopathic and supplies many herbal products; the staff are extremely helpful about checking ingredients on their computer and can usually order plant-based pharmaceutical items fairly quickly; they will also try to find out about animal testing of these too.
And if you’re self-catering, you might need cleaning products. Conad stocks a good brand called Winni’s, which is vegan and biodegradable: washing-up liquid, multi-purpose spray, and laundry liquid amongst others, as well as its own. The Coop sells liquid hand soap that isn’t tested on animals, and it’s worth checking their own brand range for other products. Naturalia also sells a wide selection of familiar brands. (For self-caterers, the Mini Market in Campo Santa Magherita stocks a huge range of inexpensive household items, from pegs to pans to heaters, also basic clothing essentials – useful in emergencies!)
As for clothes – Venice is full of clothes shops, and animal-free clothing can be found fairly easily, though the choice can be a bit limited. Again, smaller shops such as Old Lab, which specialises in unique and vintage pieces, near San Basilio, can be extremely helpful in tracking down specific vegan wants.
Souvenirs are more straightforward, such as the Murano Glass shop nearby where you can watch the artist at work creating his intricate pieces right in front of you – including realistic fruits and various animals!
Of course, half the fun of being on holiday is discovering things for yourself. It’s worth ducking into that tiny, dark grocery shop on impulse, for you never know what you might find. I was continually surprised at the unexpected vegan discoveries I made in the unlikeliest-looking places. And it’s worth remembering that this list is by no means exhaustive; the information it does contain, while correct to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing, could change overnight - perhaps even for the better!
The availability of vegan products can be elusive – brands disappear overnight to be replaced by other products (often own label but still vegan), whether food or toiletries or household cleaning goods. A quick perusal of the shelves can be frustrating if your newly-discovered favourite has suddenly vanished, but perseverance can turn up alternatives and even new lines. Smaller shops such as Naturalia can be helpful in tracking down and ordering special favourites. A quick word of caution: some products labelled ‘vegetariane’ are also vegan, but many aren’t, so it’s back to our old friend the ingredients list to check suitability. Others are helpfully labelled ‘Vegan(e)’ or ‘100% Vegetale’. And others (like Conad’s scrumptious Gran Chico biscuits – try them with ice-cream for real indulgence) aren’t labelled in that way at all.
A quick trawl through the internet will highlight helpful websites for vegans e.g. The Happy Cow website (www.happycow.net/europe/italy/venice), which has a full and useful list of restaurants that offer vegan options as well as health food shops in Venice.
Venetians look after animals as a rule (if you discount eating them), but if you should see anything that concerns you, World Animal Protection has an international telephone number/online address to which you can report suspected cruelty. And there are always the Italian animal welfare organizations, such as LAV (an anti-vivisection society that encompasses many other animal matters), as well as local vets (listed online and in the ‘phone book). Large fish in tiny barren pools by fountains are a continuing problem. There is also a dogs’ home on the small island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, but I was assured by a local vet that no strays are found in Venice (which is not hard to believe – most dogs wear collars and tags and are nearly always accompanied) and that, unlike British and Irish pounds, dogs are not put down, but are kept until they are rehomed. Of course, at the moment it’s hard to go anywhere in the world without seeing animals being abused or neglected or eaten. But Venice is surprisingly vegan-friendly, and the more that vegan issues are raised there, in shops and hotels and restaurants and supermarket queues, the more chance there is of expanding the choices available to vegans and ultimately improving the lives of animals too.
Venice demonstrates the contradictions inherent everywhere – feeling deep love for animals whilst still eating or wearing them. But it also offers hope for the future in its genuine interest in and willingness to embrace an animal-free lifestyle.
And what better way to end your stay in Venice than to stroll along the Zattere with a lemon ice-cream, watching the cormorants dive between the boats on the Giudecca canal as the sun streams down on the hopes of a better world. Here, at such moments, anything seems possible.
The author regrets that she cannot accept any responsibility for inaccuracies or any changes that may have occurred since the time of writing.
With many thanks to Siôn Roberts and Darren Stokes for all their patience and practical help with technology, to Alberto and Roberto of Web-Lab for their magic touch, and to Lucia Buso for her continuing generous hospitality.
And to Teelin and Laika, who waited patiently at home every day while I wandered the streets of Venice. Grazie a voi tutti!