Crabs are a contentious topic in Venice right now. The moeche, or soft-shell crabs – normally harvested from lagoon mudflats to star on local menus for a few short weeks in October and April – have all but vanished this year. It’s blamed on a combination of rising temperatures, overfishing and invasive alien species – chiefly, the far larger Atlantic blue crabs, which have no natural predator here in the Adriatic. Populations of jellyfish and bluefish are similarly exploding in the warmer waters. “The sea ecosystem is changing right before our eyes,” says Chiara Pavan, one half of the chef duo behind Venissa, a restaurant and vineyard on Mazzorbo island. “As chefs, we shouldn’t ignore this. We have a role to play. By choosing ingredients wisely, we can help rebalance the local ecosystem and raise awareness.”
Blue crab dumplings with marinated egg yolk and oregano. A tartlet of bluefish, black walnut crumb and herb-of-grace. Finely diced jellyfish nestled under a chard curd, sea asparagus and fennel. By plating up these invasive species – alongside hyper-local, often foraged ingredients – Pavan and co-chef Francesco Brutto’s tasting menu conveys how environmental change is impacting this corner of Italy. It’s just one facet of their eco-centric fine-dining philosophy, which extends to collaborating with local farmers on the reintroduction of biodiversity-boosting heritage crops. “Simply reducing the restaurant’s footprint isn’t enough,” Pavan believes. “It’s necessary to go further, to be regenerative.”
Many of their compatriot chefs are treading a similarly planet-friendly path. This ‘green wave’ for Italian gastronomy was evident at November’s Michelin Guide ceremony in Rome. A total of 48 restaurants, Venissa included, were awarded a Michelin Green Star – a clover-shaped emblem launched in 2020 to distinguish restaurateurs making the biggest strides in sustainability – putting Italy in third place globally (only France and Germany boast more). It has form, of course, as the nation that instigated the Slow Food movement back in the mid-80s. An abundance of high-quality produce on the doorstep certainly helps, too, whether it’s the alpine pastures of Trentino-Alto or the sun-soaked citrus groves of Campania.
The garden gang
Gnocco di silene cagliata di latte nobile e umeboshi, Venissa_©Valeria Necchio
Product sourcing has been brought even closer to home by many Michelin Green Star recipients; they’re tending to their own biodynamic kitchen gardens or even full-blown farms. “In my kitchen, it’s the garden that rules,” declares chef Enrico Crippa, who additionally holds three ‘regular’ Michelin stars at Il Duomo, Alba. “I personally visit the garden every morning before opening the restaurant. It’s a source of constant inspiration.” Inspiration for signature dishes such as ‘Salad 21-31-41-51…’ – so called for the ever-increasing variety of homegrown leaves and edible flowers Crippa uses.
“We’re very proud of our orto, a two-hectare vegetable garden that covers 90% of our supply needs,” echoes chef Davide Guidara of I Tenerumi, a vegan restaurant on Sicilian island Vulcano. His commitment to “demonstrating how vegetables can be the main protagonists on the table, rather than a supporting act,” saw him named Michelin Young Chef for 2023. Venissa’s plant-forward, pescetarian menu (seafood is bought only from local fishermen) reflects Pavan’s belief in cutting down on animal proteins and adopting a zero-kilometre approach to ingredient sourcing. Everything from amuse bouche (bitter herbs empanada, nasturtium with green pepper chutney and tarragon oil), to dessert (a zucchini-basil soufflé accompanied by mint ice-cream) are love letters to their walled gardens.
Il Colmetto in Brescia, Lombardy, “is first and foremost a farm”, and a restaurant second, according to head chef Riccardo Scalvinoni. While his cucina agricola (agricultural cuisine) remains big on seasonal veg, dairy is the pride and joy here. Their herd of 150 Saanen goats produces artisan cheese and milk. Il Colmetto’s Instagram is filled with snaps of the characterful cloven-hooved residents listening to pipe music – apparently it enhances their wellbeing – alongside wild-grazing pigs and a named cast of donkeys (stallion Pepe is quite the poser).
Ways with waste
Riso all’aglio orsino, Venissa
Il Colmetto’s farm-meets-kitchen set-up lends itself to another key tenet of sustainable fine dining: zero waste. Whey discarded from their cheese production is heated and reused to make ricotta, or incorporated into pig feed, for example. The site is solar-powered, and rainwater is collected to irrigate the fields, greenhouses and vegetable plots.
Head to the neighbouring province of Reggio Emilia and you’ll find Osteria del Viandante’s head chef Jacopo Malpeli fighting food waste with root-to-stem recipes like zucca brulèe. “We use the pumpkin in its entirety,” explains Malpeli. “Its heart is cut in a triangular shape, cooked low and slow, then caramelised. From the trimmings, we make both a peat flavoured creme and a powder to decorate the dish. The pumpkin seeds are stripped and salted. It’s 100% vegetable with a strong Emilian taste.”
At Venissa, the fermentation lab sees food scraps get a fresh lease of life. Bread crusts are brewed into soy sauce, the tough leaves of artichoke plants roasted to make coffee. Sour grapes trimmed from the vines in the summertime (normally thrown away by wineries) are preserved in brine and provide a year-round substitute for citrus, since lemons won’t grow in the Venetian climate.
Chefs with a social conscience
Riso all’aglio orsino, Il Duomo_©Letizia Cigliutti
Besides supplying the kitchens with a wealth of fresh, seasonal produce, these restaurants’ agricultural spaces double as spaces for socio-economic inclusion. Venissa has given 10 allotment plots within its walled gardens to local pensioners, mostly retired fishermen. “I love that this space is not just for tourists, but it’s also used by native people, especially vulnerable older ones,” says Pavan. “In a moment where many Italian villages, many small islands, are facing depopulation, and Venice’s municipal spaces have mostly been turned into hotels, accessible only to the very rich, this is so important.”
Welcome course, Il Colmetto and Cappelletti, Osteria del Viandante
Jacopo Malpeli concurs: “Sustainability is about more than cooking with vegetables. You have to consider society as well as the environment.” Accordingly, Osteria del Viandante partners with Italian non-profit La Collina Società Cooperativa Sociale ONLUS, getting marginalised groups who’d otherwise be excluded from the labour market – people with mental illness, substance abuse issues or criminal records – to tend to the land. Vite, another Michelin Green star holder in Emilia Romagna, similarly works with rehabilitation programme San Patrignano, training recovering addicts in the kitchen, front-of-house or agricultural teams.
Back to basics
For many of these eco-conscious chefs, the Michelin Green Star designation feels like a somewhat belated recognition of efforts they’ve been quietly ploughing away at for years. Il Duomo’s biodynamic gardens were established in 2009, Il Colmetto’s farm in 2017 and San Patrignano’s scheme has been running since 1978. Pavan remains a little sceptical about the ‘S’ word in general: “Sustainability has a deep meaning but these days it’s often more about marketing. There’s a lot of greenwashing in the restaurant business.” Overall, though, the award is a welcome bellwether. “It’s certainly useful in encouraging a culture,” says Scalvinoni. “It shows that more [diners] are realising that what’s ‘rare’ is not always ‘best’. Rather, they’re ready to be amazed by what can be done with simple, raw materials.”
The gardens ©Letizia Cigliutti ; Restaurant Venissa (left): Restaurant Il Duomo (right)
Although this shift is global, Italy is perhaps at the forefront because many hallmarks of sustainable dining – celebrating humble, local ingredients, conserving resources – are familiar from cucina povera. Think of panzanella and ribollata, both traditional peasant recipes for repurposing stale bread. Of course, today’s Michelin-starred establishments employ far more complex techniques and prettier plating, but sustainable fine dining has found, in Italian culinary culture, something undeniably simpatico.