Most people are surprised when they hear that traveling in Italy while eating gluten-free is quite easy. There are enough people with celiac disease for this small country to do things quite differently than in the United States. Of course, having a successful gluten-free vacation starts with planning. Keep reading to learn how I ate gluten-free with my family while traveling in Italy and Rome for seven days.
Prepare For Delays
For the plane ride, make sure to request a gluten-free meal from your airline. British Airways, so far, has had the best options for my family. We try to eat before we get to the airport so we are never starving, too. I often bring gluten-free bread, rolled deli meat, small packets of almond butter, nuts, chips, and fruit. It's always a good idea to have food on the plane just in case your flight or connection is delayed. Just make sure to check the TSA rules for the amount of liquid/gels you can bring on the plane. Nut butters are considered a gel so keep the amount small. Certain airports actually have very good food so if you have time before the flight to grab something, this may not be an issue.
Learn Some Phrases
Make sure you know a few key phrases such as “senza glutine”. If you are celiac, you should say "sono celiaco" (if you're male) or "sono celiaca" (if you're female). Many people speak basic English but their English may not be so good. Don't assume everyone will, especially in the smaller towns. Remember, it's a good idea to do some research based on where you will be traveling. In all of our travels, Rome was probably one of the best cities. We used Trip Advisor and Google most frequently. Sometimes we discovered some of the best places this way. I belong to a celiac Yahoo group and received some great tips from them as well.
Before you get to your first destination, do some research about gluten-free restaurants or bakeries where you will be. Make sure to also check the opening times. On one of our trips, I was really looking forward to a gluten-free bakery in Rome. I was dreaming about it for days. We planned it into our day, took a bus and walked about ¼ of a mile to find out it was closed; it was the Tuesday after Easter. It was on the website but I hadn't looked closely enough. Keep a list of places you might want to visit but keep your expectations realistic. On another trip, we did find a great restaurant with glunte-free options near the Vatican (see below). We loved our lunch but by the time we were done, the line to get into the Vatican was so long, we decided to not go in (it's always busy at Easter). At least I had had some gnocchi!
If you're not a planner, don't worry. Even if you don't map out every step of your trip, you won't go hungry. Restaurants are required to offer some type of gluten-free food. That doesn't mean there will be a gluten-free menu, per se, but you can almost always get risotto, plain grilled meat or, quite often, gluten-free pasta. On every occasion that we asked for gluten-free pasta, they explained it would take a little while longer to boil a new pot of water. Some of the best gluten-free food I have had has been in Italy. Maybe it helps that I'm of Italian descent so it happens to be my favorite food!
Be Cautious of Desserts
Another thing to note is gelato. It's not always gluten-free so ask and the people who work there can tell you. If you have celiac disease or are intolerant, you will need to tell them that. They should use a new or cleaned scooper and scoop from the front of the gelato to avoid cross contamination. Also, ask for gluten-free cones; you might be pleasantly surprised to find some. This was always our first question as it's something we really miss. When you are asking, speak slowly and specifically to make it easy for them to understand your request. My husband asked for limone (lemon) once and got melone (cantaloupe) instead! In some gelaterias, you pay first. Look to see what everyone is doing or ask someone.
Take Some Food To-Go
If you want to have some food for a picnic, in your hotel room or maybe a rented apartment, there are two places to look for food that is “senza glutine” or without gluten, a phrase with which to become familiar. First is the grocery store. Almost all will have a section or end-cap display with bread, pasta and cookies. When looking at other packaged food like meats or yogurt, the ingredients are usually labeled very clearly (again, look for the words “senza glutine”). Whenever I'm in Italy, I just like to look at what is in the grocery store. Sometimes I find the best things by accident! The brand Dr. Schar, made in Italy, is very easy to find.
You can also find gluten-free food in most pharmacies (farmacia) since celiac disease is a medical condition. I went into a pharmacy at an airport and asked about the gluten-free food. The selection was limited. But, one of the things they had were palmiers (also known as elephant ears). We haven't had them in years! I bought a package and gave a cookie to my daughter. Her eyes opened wide and she said “Mama, this is gluten-free?” Yes, it's the little things like that.
Below are a few websites which might help:
My favorite places over the past few years have been:
- Mama Eat in Rome (there is one in Naples as well)
- La Soffitta Renovatio in Rome
- La Pantera del Rosa in Bologna (translation: the pink panther; one of the best gluten-free pizzas ever!)
- Starbene Senza Glutine bakery (various locations in the Northern region of Italy like Florence and
- Lucca; amazing)
- GROM for gelato (from what I understand, besides the gelato, all of the cones and cookies are now
- gluten-free but always ask)
The only thing to caution you with is that once you have this amazing food, you might not want to come back. Ciao and buon viaggio (goodbye and good travels)!
Chef Amy Fothergill teaches cooking classes, provides consultations and presentations, and keeps up a regular blog on family cooking at Amy The Family Chef. She is the author of the gluten-free cookbook, The Warm Kitchen: Gluten-Free Recipes Anyone Can Make and Everyone Will Love. Amy lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.