Gluten-free Travels: Italy, or How I Gained 5 Pounds in 5 Weeks

Teeth aching from all that gluten-free Halloween candy? Not quite ready to tackle thoughts of gluten-free Thanksgiving?

No worries. A little bit of escapism, for the between-holiday time. Last month, I wrote a blissed-out post from gluten-free Bologna, promising more information about traveling gluten-free through Italy. Here we go:

Produce at the Campo di Fiore market, Rome
Produce at the Campo di Fiore market, Rome

Salumeria on the Campo di Fiore, Rome
Salumeria on the Campo di Fiore, Rome

I’m not the first person to write about eating gluten-free in Italy. The Celiac Chicks posted a great list of gluten-free restaurants, and the Gluten-free Girl and the Chef’s gluten-free Italian honeymoon makes me want to get married, just so I can take a trip like that.

But there’s always room for more, right? Now, I can’t testify to the presence/absence/quality of any of the specific places listed in the above posts. But their basic theme – eating gluten-free in Italy is easy and enjoyable – remains very true today.

Keep reading to find out where I ate this...

A handful of highlights:

What every gluten-free traveler should have:

  • The Italian gluten-free dining card. Overall, Italians are far more aware than Americans – but you will still encounter those who aren’t.
  • The proper pronunciation for these phrases. My italics are rough, but hopefully helpful:
    • I am a celiac: Sono celiaca. So-no chee-lee-ah-ka. If you’re male, you’re a celiaco.
    • I am allergic to wheat: Sono allergico al frumento. So-no al-ler-jih-ko al froo-men-to.
    • Without gluten, please: Senza glutine, per favore. Sen-za gloo-tee-neh, per fah-vor-ray.
    • Thank you so much!: Grazie mille! Gra-tzee-ah mil-lay!
  • A box or bag of gluten-free crackers, rice cakes, grissini, etc. These are widely available in grocery stores, and every farmacia will also have a selection.
  • A couple of plastic forks and/or a pocketknife, for meals cobbled together from the markets.
  • The link to the AIC, or Associazione Italiana Celiachia. There’s no English version yet, but you can search for restaurants by region by clicking on Dieta Senza Glutina / Alimentazione Fuori Casa. Not every restaurant that has gluten-free food is listed here, but any that are listed have passed rigorous testing.
  • A quick reality check. Not every place that advertises gluten-free food serves good gluten-free food. Stay long enough, and you will inevitably encounter soupy pizza, crumbly rolls, tasteless and overpriced pasta, etc. Being a gluten-free traveler in a gluten-aware country sometimes means that you get taken in by the same tourist traps as non-celiac travelers. Don’t let it ruin your good time.

A gluten-free wonderland, Verona
A gluten-free wonderland in Verona

What’s the deal with the pharmacies?

  • Whichever city or town you’re in, just look for an electric green plus sign outside the door. That’s a farmacia, and they’re plentiful.
  • Some have an easy-to-spot section of gluten-free foods. They also stock foods for other dietary concerns, though, so be sure to double-check the packaging.
  • Some keep their gluten-free food a bit hidden, so it’s worthwhile to tell an employee that you are celiac. In Verona, I was whisked upstairs to an extra room that was lined, wall-to-wall, with more gluten-free food than I could have eaten in a month.
  • You can usually find rice cakes and gluten-free crackers in the supermarkets. They’ll generally be cheaper there than in a farmacia, but as in the US questions of cross-contamination by shared equipment can remain.

What are these strange things?

  • Grains: Italians eat a lot of kamut and farro. You can’t, so don’t – they are not gluten-free. Besides, there should be plenty of rice and corn, most typically in the forms of risotto and polenta, to keep you busy. You can almost always eat these, so once you’ve cleared it with the chef or read the label, enjoy!
  • Happy Hours: The Italian equivalent is called aperitivo. During the after-work hours, you’ll gain access to a buffet with the purchase of a drink. Offerings vary from bar to bar, and some will be more accessible to gluten-free travelers than others. If you want a drink and don’t want the buffet, be sure to say so when you order.
  • Numbered flours: In Italy, flour is sometimes listed as 00, 01, etc. This refers to how it’s ground – but it’s still made from wheat, and you still can’t eat it.

What are some memorable and delicious foods?

  • A gluten-free crepe with nutella and banana from a hidden creperie in Perugia’s old town. It was called Les Cre Fantastique, and I think it was on Via Volte della Pace, a tiny dark alleyway near the Fontana Maggiore.
Took every ounce of willpower I had not to order a dozen of these gluten-free crepes
Took every ounce of willpower I had not to order a dozen of these gluten-free crepes
  • Ricotta and fig gelato on a gluten-free cone at the Gelateria del Teatro in Rome. Heaven.
  • Gluten-free dinner and breakfast at the Ostello della Pace outside Assisi. Breakfast is included in the cost of a night’s stay, and dinner can be had for an extra charge. Was it the best food on my trip? No. But, they’re extremely celiac-aware and able to provide gluten-free accommodations at no extra cost – and after a day on the hills of Assisi, it was nice to know I was going to be taken care of.
  • A primi of gluten-free whole-grain pasta with pumpkin and parsley (picture above), followed by a secondi of meltingly good osso bucco with freshly cooked vegetables. We wound our way to an obscure trattoria on Santa Croce on recommendation from an old nonna, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the chalkboard outside mentioned “pasta senza glutine” and that the chef was herself a celiac.
  • Salad of spinach, fresh blueberries, fancy fancy mozzarella, ham, and balsamic at an Obika in Milan.
  • Numerous park-bench lunches of steamed spinach, soft cheeses, tins of sardines packed in olive oil, salty olives, crisp fruits…sometimes, the best foods are the ones that are naturally gluten-free.

Adventures in Spain and Slovenia to come, but in the meantime – if you’ve been to Italy, where were you and how well did you eat?

2 thoughts on “Gluten-free Travels: Italy, or How I Gained 5 Pounds in 5 Weeks”

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I went to (and fell in love with) Italy before I was diagnosed. I loved the food so much, and I have been very reluctant to go back for fear that all the wonderful food would be denied to me. This made me so happy to read!

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