Italy is considered a country of pure delight for foodies. But if you’re a gluten-free eater, how will you manage on your travels?
Italians are very aware of gluten allergies. All Italians were tested for gluten sensitivity as a child. Positive testers get some great benefits – a monthly stipend from the government so they can buy gluten-free foods. It’s also law that gluten-free food is available in schools, hospitals and public places. Proof of the value of food in la Bella Italia.
Here are 5 tips to make your Italian Viaggio gluten-free:
1. LEARN TO SAY CELIAC IN ITALIAN
The first thing you need to do is learn how to tell people you’re celiac or gluten-intolerant in Italian. Don’t assume English speakers will be on-hand to translate for you. Remember it’s up to you to make yourself understood.
If you are keen to get your tongue around the language you can say it two ways:
- “Io sono celiaco [prounced “ee-o soo-no che-le-ah-cho”] – this translates to “I am celiac”
- You can order “senza glutine” food [pronounced “senn-za glu-tee-nay”] – this translates to “without gluten”.
Writing it down on a little card that you can present at the opportune moment is another alternative, particularly if you’re a little shy about pronunciation.
2. FIND YOUR LOCAL FRUITERIA
It seems on almost every street corner you can find a fruiteria, or little fruit and vegetable shop. These fabulous grocers provide the perfect combination of fresh and accessible produce.
You’ll see the locals visiting to buy just enough fruit and veges for that day. They’ll be back tomorrow for more. Don’t handle the fruit but let the grocer pick out the best product for you.
Buy easily transportable frutta e verdura (fruit and vegetables) that you can carry around in your bag for the day while you check out the sites.
3. PREPARE YOUR OWN BREAKFAST
B&Bs provide the traditional Italian breakfast of something sweet like a pastry or brioche and a good strong caffe (aka coffee). These are usually eaten standing up at a local bar (or cafe). Unless you’re staying in hotels or dodgy English-tourist accommodation where they serve bacon and eggs for breakfast, you will need to prepare your own breakfast.
It’s usually very easy to find a local shop to buy your own ingredients. I easily found gluten-free rice wafers (I know, I know – they are similar texture to cardboard) but they work to hold toppings on. I would buy some pesto, proscuitto (ham), and tomatoes. These ingredients were easy to transport and there was usually a fridge in my room to keep them fresh. You can also try wrapping your proscuitto around slices of melon for an alternative light breakfast.
4. STICK WITH THE RISOTTO OR THE ZUPPA
As pasta has spread to menus throughout the world, it has somehow been elevated to il secondo (a second course or main course) instead of the traditional il primo (first course or entree). In Italy pasta is traditionally only consumed as an entree. That’s yay for the gluten-freers.
Risotto makes the perfect entree and I never missed seeing it on a menu. It’s fabulously creaminess far exceeded my own prior attempts ay home.
Zuppa (or soup) is the other perfect alternative. Italian soups can often be simple broths which are light and perfect as an entree. Just don’t eat the ribollita which has bread in it.
5. TAKE YOUR OWN MUESLI BARS
Like all good gluten-free travelers, you need to go prepared. It will be very unlikely you can’t find gluten-free food if you’re eating out. However, a ready supply of trusty gluten-free muesli bars is great to have on-hand in case you experience difficulties. I don’t normally suggest bars given their unusually high sugar content, but in the short-term, they make a good travel companion.
Make sure the bars are professionally produced and sealed and you shouldn’t have any problems getting them through Customs. Don’t forget to declare them!
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS TO TRY
To finish, here are my recommended food highlights … I can still taste them now!
1. Cheese, cheese and more cheese (!)
Find yourself some gorgonzola and true parmigiano-reggiano (or parmesan as we commonly know it) on arrival. Cheese is everywhere, easy to purchase, and very cheap. Eat up large and make the most of your Italian splurge.
2. Fresh olive oil
Forget the cheap supermarket brands you might be used to. Sample the freshest olive oil and discover a whole new taste sensation. Italians use their better quality oils to drizzle over just about everything. Some restaurants will press their own oil so do ask where their oil comes from. My favourite memory is a young oil which was actually lime green – tart and simply delicious.
This thinly-sliced, dry-cured ham is easy obtainable from any local deli. It’s freshly sliced while you wait, then beautifully tied up in a wee package of paper and string. It’s incredibly addictive and makes a great breakfast or lunch accompaniment.
4. Roasted quail
If you happen to see this wee bird on the menu soaked in vin santo (sweet wine) then don’t even hesitate to order. This remains one of the most divine meals I’ve ever sampled in my life one fabulous night in la Roma (Rome).
Ok not an actual food (although I’m sure I could argue it as a food group!) but this lemon liqueur is the perfect digestivo (digestive) to follow your stupendous Italian feast.
(I’m leaving off tiramisu as it’s not gluten-free but if you’re lucky enough to find a gf version, eat your heart out!).
Your trip to Italy will be deeply enriched by the fabulous cuisine on offer. One thing I loved the most is that a lot of Italian recipes come from the traditional peasant culture of people who lived off the land. There are no airs and graces attached to Italian food, just incredibly fresh and simple ingredients, often topped with a delicious swirl of superb olive oil.
Italians know and love good food. They take long, relaxed lunches with some vino (wine). The wine is available in 1/4 liter, 1/2 liter, or 1-liter jugs – perfect for any number of drinkers. So do make the most of your holiday and order some wine to sup with your meal.
Eat, enjoy, and don’t worry about your waist-line (it’s bad for the digestion). And if you think of me, take some photos of the food to send me when you get home!