Planning a vacation to Italy and worrying about what you’ll be able to eat as a Celiac? Fret no more! Armed with my top tips, eating gluten-free in Italy will be a cinch!
Known as “the land of bread and pasta,” many of my friends and family would gasp a bit when they heard that Italy was the European destination of choice for our long-awaited vacation.
“Italy?!?! What ever will you eat???” was the common reaction from almost everyone.
The answer? EVERYTHING!
Eating gluten-free in Italy is SO easy – there were gluten-free options everywhere! And there was not a single Italian working in food service that I came across that didn’t know what Celiac was, what that meant when serving me, and what my very specific limitations were. I was joking with my husband while we were there that the waiters/waitresses often seemed to be even more worried about my health than I was. And honestly, they were!
For example: One day in particular we had gone out for a late afternoon drink, when we decided that it would be nice to have a snack to power us through our early evening sightseeing. Even though we were only going to order a caprese salad and a cheese/meat plate, I still mentioned to our waitress that I had Celiac, just to make sure she knew and could communicate to the kitchen to be extra careful with the preparation. Well, her eyes got really big and she explained that our choices were gluten-free, but that their kitchen might not be safe for me as it was pretty small.
She looked SO worried.
She went back to talk to the chef who confirmed that the dishes were safe, but my risk for cross-contamination was high. She came back, and said “I’m so sorry, but I just don’t feel that we can be safe enough for you. See that restaurant across the piazza? They have a whole separate kitchen area just for food allergies and it’s very good food. I’m so sorry, but I know you’ll be safe there.”
Um what?!? Did she just refer me to her “competition?” And THEN when we tried to pay for our drinks, and she said “Oh no, don’t worry about it. Again, I am SO sorry.” You guys — she was sorry, and I was the one with the limitation. CRAZY! Maybe I just haven’t had the best gluten-free food experiences back here in the States, but I have NEVER had someone in food service be that compassionate and concerned for my health and safety.
That’s just one little story but there were SO many others like that! The Italians all seem to be so well educated on what Celiac is and how to work around it — and, almost most shockingly, they are THRILLED to do so!
Despite the gloriously Celiac-aware Italians (I want to hug ALL OF THEM. Seriously.), there is still the ever-present risk of getting glutened while in Italy, just like anywhere else. So, without further ado, here are my top tips for ensuring a pain-free Italian getaway:
Learn the phrase “lo sono celiaca(o)” and “senza glutine”
“lo sono celiaca” means “I have Celiac” and “senza glutine” means “gluten-free” or “without gluten.” At first I just started asking for gluten-free, and everyone was very helpful, but then one day someone asked me if I had Celiac, and then said “ohhhhhhh you’re Celiac” — and their answer changed on what was safe and what was not. I also had another waiter tell me that it’s better to say “I have Celiac” than asking for gluten-free — a stark difference from the US where people often look as you like you have three heads when you say “Celiac.” Make sure you know “senza glutine” too though, because that’s what most gluten-free foods and menus are marked with!
Print and take a couple of these cards with you, just in case.
Shoutout to Celiac Travel for putting this together! I actually only had to use it once at the very beginning of my trip when I think my American Italian accent was just a little bit too thick to be understood 😉 But it was a HUGE help!
Stop in to the restaurant earlier in the day to check on the menu/ talk to the owner or chef.
If a place catches your eye, pop in earlier in the day (as long as they are open), tell them you have celiac, and ask them if they are able to serve you (if you want to eat at a highly-rated place you’ll have to do this anyways to make a reservation). This way, they are prepared for you, and if they do have a small kitchen and need to turn you away for your own safety, you have time to find a back-up plan. Doing this also proved to be really fun — I found that most people were SO friendly, and sometimes would even strike up a conversation with us after we put in our reservation. Also, if they CAN’T accommodate you (we only came across a couple places that said no) they are usually more than happy to give you a few suggestions, and, let me tell you, getting suggestions from locals is the BEST way to find a good restaurant.
Eat on the “earlier” side.
“Early” in Italy is 7:00 or 7:30, when most restaurants open, and they tend to get very busy around 8:30-9. We always tried to eat on the earlier side, thinking that the kitchens would be a little less busy, so they’d be able to cater to my needs a little better if they were able to make adjustments. Eating early also ensured that if there was a gluten-free special for the night, they were sure to still have it. A couple times we ate on the later side and by the time we reached the dessert course, all of the gluten-free options had been gobbled up by other patrons. (Oh darn, more gelato instead ;))
Need a quick snack? Stop by any supermarket or farmacia!
Every single supermarket AND pharmacy that we came across had a gluten-free section. Yes, you read that right — even the PHARMACY! In Italy, they view Celiac as an ailment, and if a gluten-free diet is the only remedy, why not carry gluten-free foods just like they carry aspirin for headaches? This was somewhat shocking to me, but their logic is spot on! And you certainly did not hear me arguing the point come mid-day
hangry time snack time when I needed to nosh on something quick and easy, like crackers. Farmacia to the rescue!
Check out the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC) website.
While they don’t have a full English translation on their site, they do have a wonderful map of all of the restaurants that have been trained, certified and monitored by the AIC. I believe they also just released an App! I can’t say too much about it as I’ve never used it, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
Armed with these tips and the knowledge that the “land of bread and pasta” might actually be the most Celiac-friendly place on planet Earth, go ahead and CONFIDENTLY plan that Italian vacation. And get ready for some of the best [gluten-free] pasta of your life!
Also, keep an eye out for my individual posts on WHERE to eat in Venice, Florence, and Rome — coming soon to a blog near you 😉
(If you’re currently planning a vacation to any of those cities or are heading there super soon — aka before I share each individual post — feel free to shoot me an email – grainchanger[at]gmail.com – and I will be happy to pass my recommendations along!)