Gluten Free in the Land of Bread and Pasta

“Una pizza margarita, senza glutine, por favore.” poured from my tongue, an attempt at accented Italian. The server smiled “one pizza, senza glutine, okay!” in response as she scribbled my order followed by my friends. We sat in a circa 1980’s green back room of a small restaurant only a block away from lines of tourists surrounding Micheangelo’s David.

The smell of mouthwatering plates was overpowering as it drifted from the small kitchen,  while waiting was torture for our hungry and impatient stomachs as a dusty boar’s head stared suspiciously from above the bathroom. Once the food arrived it was no time at all before it was gone, and I was left doing a seated happy dance about how I had just eaten the best pizza of my life. Italy was proving to have the best dining options for my gluten-free life.

Anyone can find eating while traveling hard enough, let alone attempting to do it with food allergies, yet with a little research one can find a world full of edibles that won’t leave your stomach and self, miserable during a well-earned vacation.

I myself have to remember that no, I am not the only person on the planet that is gluten free or dairy free. The reality is that in this day of easier global exploration, the world has become smaller and more connected to different eating concepts. In places like Italy 1 out of 250 people are thought to have celiac disease, and as a result more restaurants in Italy are trying to accommodate for the disease.

In Italy, the government is even aware of the problem and they sell Gluten-Free products at pharmacies, an aid for locals and tourists alike. “Thanks to the public health system my sister can place an order each month to the pharmacy and get all the main food for free.” Enrica Guidato informed me, her twin sister has celiac disease and is doing just fine in her native Lecce, Italy. For the tourist there will be no free pasta, but to know that a country acknowledges the disease is a step in the right direction.

When I was in Florence in 2013 Guidato was a helping hand, she pointed me in the right direction for food, which restaurants were the best, which cared enough to offer gluten free, her list was a mile long of the best gluten free eats. Her experiences with her sister meant she knew great places to eat, and new things to try. It also made me realize just asking others meant a whole hidden knowledge could be opened.

So I asked Roger Elliot, a celiac since his mid-twenties who started a website specifically to share stories of his own eating experiences around the world. He believes that people can go and eat anywhere with celiac disease it just takes a little work. “I think you should take time to properly research the food in the destination you’re travelling to.” Says Roger “That said, there’s always plain meat, fish and veg, and if you have access to self-catering facilities, you should always be able to get by I reckon.”

Roger and his wife also came up with a great idea to overcome language barriers, by making little cards that state exactly what one is allergic to, to show at restaurants. They come in 54 languages and are completely free on his website: celiactravel.com, and are an innovative and easy way to keep one’s digestive system happy.

Another thing about asking, are the pleasant surprises that come with it. I give you one night in Rome.

Since I was studying abroad, we had a side trip to Rome. I was in Rome with my program director, where we had a meal at a place near our hotel and just off the beaten tourist path, Rinaldi al Quirinale. According to its website it served Gluten-Free, but I assumed like most places in the states, there would be a salad or maybe some spaghetti involved and that would be it. I went into the location head held high however, since first of all I was in Rome, and second I was out to dinner with two new friends, and excited at the chance of getting to know both better. Not only did that set the scene for a perfect night, but the restaurant set a standard of excellent dining well beyond anything we could have imagined.

When I asked the server about gluten free he informed me I could have anything I wanted on the menu, and to top that off when real bread was brought for my dinner buddies I got my own, fresh from the oven, gluten free bread roll all to myself. I ended up ordering the mushroom risotto but I swear it was the best I ever had, and with a wait staff willing to bend over backwards for our every need it was a great feeling. It was everything you dream of Italy, a solid and happy relationship with your food, making new friends, and watching the sun set over the eternal city.

In the end, asking for senza glutine proved to be a ticket to winning a great meal and beautiful experience all over Italy. Whether I was eating a pizza, plate of pesto, or a truffle risotto, being celiac opened doors to meeting and understanding people in a new light that I don’t believe would have been there with a normal diet. Maybe I just appreciated having options that I never got at home, or maybe Italy’s food just gives everyone that loving, warm feeling; as if your own grandma poured her love into it.

SURVIVAL- Quick tips

COOKING

As expensive as eating gluten-free in the states can be, expect the same for Europe, but add on an exchange rate, and that rice pasta for €4 becomes about $6. However, if you look around for new ideas you can cook for much less. Risotto, a huge box, will usually only run €1 and make about 10 servings, and fresh veggies in Italy are cheap, delicious, locally grown, and worth the preparation.

DINING OUT

When eating out look around at prices and expect for a Pizza Margarita that is Senza Glutine to be about €11-15 or $15-20 which is pretty normal for eating in the states.  But if you are skipping the pizza, look for risotto specials, salads, and other things especially at restaurants that don’t do a lot gluten-free bread-like products.

GLUTEN FREE FOODS TO TRY
Risotto- rice based and full of endless possibilities, whether it’s mushroom, truffle, vegetable or seafood you will never be disappointed.
Salmon and Arugula- a great plate served with some multi-course meals and perfect for the pescetarian or meat eater
Pizza- many places advertise if they make GF pizza, but don’t be afraid to ask too. Some even have different crust choices!
Pasta- This is the most common bread-like dish you can find, as many places keep a bag of rice pasta on hand, just in case someone like you wanders in. They can usually make it with any sauce you want, or kind. Pesto pasta in Italy is to die for.
Salad- If you have numerous allergies this is a great place to start, no dressing but a little olive oil and lemon juice are the norm, and you can usually get it with no meat but plenty of fresh vegetables, and egg. Tuna is also common if you do fish.
Caprese- cheese and tomatoes, with oil? What’s not to love?
Meat specialties (if you eat meat)- Try some prosciutto with melon, wild boar, steak or just about anything else, never did I hear a complaint.
Polenta- corn based, and delicious. It can come in deep-fried cubes, or under sauce, but all around it’s fantastic.
WINE!- hey you may not be able to get some cheap beer, but you can drink wine, and for a good price. If in Tuscany, you must have some Chianti- you can’t leave the country if you don’t.
How do you say that?
ENGLISH ITALIAN
Gluten- Free Senza Glutine
Dairy / lactose/ milk/ cheese Caseificio/ lattosio/ latte/ formaggio
Wheat/ barley/ rye Grano/ orzo/ segale
Soy soia

red tilesDSC_0091

lady with gelato

Happy Eating!

~Rebecca Lee Robinson

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