Traveling Gluten Free in Italy

italy gf symbol       david

THREE GLUTEN FREE MASTERPIECES FROM FLORENCE, ITALY

An opportunity to travel in Italy for two weeks was an exciting prospect. Now, to travel gluten free in Italy was a daunting prospect. I would be going with a group from my church. Breakfasts and dinners would be pre-planned and only lunches would be on my own. I worried about navigating through hotel restaurants and eateries that would run the gamut from no knowledge of gluten free to a full understanding of celiac disease and cross contamination. So, I plunged into full preparation mode. I prepared with bars and protein snacks in my checked luggage, printed sheets of restaurant instructions in Italian, peppered and pestered the tour company staff with questions and demands, and loaded “find gluten free” apps on my tablet. I prayed that I wouldn’t get sick and flew off to Rome.

“Senza Glutine,” was the Italian for “gluten free” and it would be my “go to” term when I was dealing with food. It was a term I learned first thing after checking into my Rome hotel. The hotel desk clerk and the restaurant manager spoke good English and were surprisingly knowledgeable about gluten free. They assured me that breakfast in the hotel the next morning would have gluten free choices for me.
I was buoyed with confidence and ready to forge ahead. Then I met the tour guide who would be with us for the entire time. She was Spanish, lived in Spain, and was paid to take our tour through Italy (??????) I discussed gluten free with her and discovered that she had no clue and had not even heard of celiac disease. My confidence plummeted as I realized that she probably would think that cross contamination was a process used for hybridizing plants. There was only one thing to do! Educate her as quickly as possible, which I did over my first cappuccino. Ana was a quick study  with her newly gained knowledge.  She told me in accented English that she would gladly run interference for me with all the restaurants and hotels we were to stay in. As an eternal skeptic, I knew that I would be the one explaining and trying to communicate at every stop to get something good to eat that would not make me sick.

No worries!! Italy is a more advanced country than the U.S. in terms of understanding celiac disease. Everybody knows about it! You must be tested for the disease before the age of 6 and the government initially supplies you with vouchers for gluten free food. They consider it a serious medical condition and not a fad. As I traveled, I discovered that all the hotels, restaurants, and even street vendors know what celiac is. You just have to say the magic words, “senza glutine” and faces light up with knowledge about what gluten free is and how it should be prepared. Now, this is not to say that they all provide gluten free. Many restaurants do not and will tell you straight up that they can give you something gluten free, but, it will not be free of cross contamination, or, they cannot accommodate you at all. On the other hand there will be another venue next door or a block away that will provide you with gluten free and they knew how to prepare without cross contamination. They even have specific wait staff that deals with gluten free and will help you with ordering and communication to the chef. I had pizzas, pastas, lasagna, tiramisu, etc. all specially made just for me.

Ana proved to be invaluable in preparing restaurants and hotels (who knew?). In her flawless Italian, she doggedly called ahead several times to each place we went to and upon arrival sought out the manager, chef, owner etc. to make sure that they had gluten free ready for me. All the hotels and restaurants we went to dealt with tour groups and had a protocol in place for gluten free. I only had 2 “standard” meals consisting of a baked, dried out chicken breast, no dressing salad, limp overcooked vegetables, and an orange for dessert. However, I had many meals of sautéd, sauced, meat and vegetables as well as pastas, risottos, cheeses, sausages, and desserts. With accompanying wine (this is Italy after all) at every lunch and dinner!! This was my idea of traveling gluten free!!!

Restaurants made their own gluten free bread products, but it is a different story at hotels especially for their breakfasts. They still provided many bread and cake products, but they were purchased and pre-wrapped. Italians enjoy croissants and cappuccinos for breakfast as their usual. Hotels provide large non-Italian breakfasts for travelers especially from the U.S. who expect meat, eggs, pancakes, etc. I had no problem at any of the 5 hotels we stayed at as they always served me too many packages of gluten free items like cereals, breads, crackers, cakes, and cookies. Most sausages and eggs were made gluten free. For lunches which were on our own, I ate at cafes in the larger square areas of cities. I always found one that could accommodate me. And, there was always someone there that spoke English. They all had a special waiter completely familiar with what they offered gluten free who served me.

In every large city, small town, any shopping area throughout Italy there is a local farmacia. It is a cross between a drug store, health store, and medical supply. You can get prescriptions filled, leg braces, herbs, supplements, and GLUTEN FREE FOOD. Ana took me to the nearest farmacia to our hotel in Rome soon after I educated her on gluten free. She said that if any place would have gluten free, it would be the farmacia. I soon discovered farmacias everywhere we went. They all had some gluten free food. The larger farmacias had freezers full of prepared pastas, meals, breads and desserts. I also checked out some small “mom and pop” grocers on my walks in Rome. Most had some gluten free packaged food and they could tell you what cheeses, sausages, and prepared meat products in their refrigerated cases were made gluten free. Schar is the predominant product however, there are many Italian made pastas and bread products. The national symbol for gluten free is a red wheat stalk within a red circle slash. All gluten free products in Italy must be labeled with the symbol and say, “senza glutine”.

Gelato (Italian ice cream) is a treat not to be missed in Italy. Many of the flavors are gluten free. I even had gelato in a gluten free waffle cone. Stay away from street vendors and go into the free standing stores. Many have the gluten free gelato in a separate freezer case, individually wrapped cones, use special scoopers, and change their gloves to serve you. Gluten free bakeries are rare except in the larger cities. My favorite was found in Florence, a city-wide chain called Starbene. They had both sweet and savory from savory pizza, calzones, and ciabatta bread as well as sweets such as croissants, cream puffs, and tiramisu. I bought several apricot and chocolate croissants to enjoy for breakfast the next few mornings. As others in my party were shocked to see me enjoying croissants with them at breakfast, I quickly let them know that they were from the gluten free bakery.

Among my great experiences in Italy, I stopped into a local grocer in Lanciano and inquired as to their gluten free offerings. At the sound of my, “senza glutine?” two customers at the counter began speaking to me in Italian. They were very excited and animated. I tried to tell them that I could only speak English, but they were undeterred. They followed me out into the street chattering away, gesturing, and pointing everywhere. I caught the word “farmacia” and knew they were directing me to the nearest one. Intuitively, I knew they were also telling me about family members who had celiac and were relating their medical histories/symptoms. Upon encountering us in the street, my husband remarked, “I see you are making gluten free friends in Italy!”

Another memorable experience happened while my husband and I were lunching on the square in Sienna. When my gluten free pasta was delivered to me by a different waiter than the one who took the order, I asked him if it was indeed gluten free. He answered in accented English, “I’m not really sure. I’ll just watch you eat it and wait for your reaction!” After seeing the stunned speechless expressions on the faces of me and my husband, he quickly reassured us that he was joking and the dish was indeed gluten free as he was the waiter who took care of all the gluten free customers. So much for Italian humor! The pasta was gluten free and delicious.

Besides a multiplicity of souvenirs in my suitcase, I brought back all the bars and protein snacks that I didn’t have a chance to eat because of the fabulous availability of gluten free Italy has to offer.

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