While the concept of going gluten-free in the world’s most iconic pizza and pasta destination might seem like a contradiction in terms, Italy is actually super straight-forward to negotiate if you’re coeliac or prefer eating a gluten-free diet.
Here’s how to make the most of it—and rest assured, you won’t feel like you’ve been cheated out of the trip of your carb-laden dreams.
The fact that Italy is so conscious of its gluten-free citizens and of course, visitors, is owing greatly to the national coeliac screening programme, which was introduced in Italy around 2005 (despite the fact it’s now been phased out due to its high cost).
According to Dr Alessio Fasano, the director of the University of Maryland’s Centre for Coeliac Research, “it raised awareness and put the disease in the spotlight… gluten is such a major part of the Italian diet, they started screening schoolchildren.”
She believes that the growth of the gluten-free movement has been a godsend for travellers; saying “it has pushed restaurants and hotels to offer more varied and palatable gluten-free food than they did five years ago.” Coeliacs also receive a state subsidy to compensate them for the higher cost of gluten-free food—which is indicative of how seriously the country takes the issue. We’re impressed!
Of course, part of travelling is experiencing a new culture and place with an open mind, and being willing to try things that might not be quite within your comfort zone. The beauty of the gluten-free scene in Italy is that it’s really varied, so you don’t need to simply eat the same thing for every meal in order to fill your belly.
While they’re iconic (and absolutely available with gluten-free modifications), the food in Italy isn’t just pizza and pasta. There’s also some beautiful risottos to try (be sure to check that the broth is gluten-free), porchetta pork roasts, panelle and cecina—iterations of regional flatbreads as well as ragu, pesto and some delicious gluten-free sausages that will really hit the spot.
Thanks to the inherent influence of the Mediterranean diet on Italian food culture, many dishes are comprised of fresh, simple ingredients that really do the talking without the need for added processing. Look out for delicious Caprese salads, fresh fish dishes and meat and vegetable dishes to sample the best produce Italy has to offer.
Inevitably, the obvious gluten-containing culprits should be avoided, such as pizza, pasta, and breaded meats and vegetables (like cacciatore and crumbed calamari). Other, less-obvious dishes like arancini and meatballs should also be avoided, as well as salami—as the customary preparation method involves gluten.
Also, we’re sorry to be the bearer of bad news; but the majority of gelato also contains gluten—so unless it specifies otherwise, it’s worth giving it a wide berth. Same goes for tiramisu, we’re sad to report.
Explaining your gluten-free dietary requirements in Italy can seem like a daunting task, but rest assured that the majority of servers and restaurants are well-versed in catering to gluten-free requirements, and really embrace it as an issue with empathy as opposed to an attitude of inconvenience.
Learning the translations for “gluten-free”, “senza glutine” and “I am coeliac”, “Io sono celiaca” is obviously important, but you should find that depending on where in Italy you are, many Italians speak great English, which would allow you to go into more detail about your requirements. There’s also the option of carrying a detailed gluten-free restaurant card, which you can simply pull up on your phone to explain your needs. Easy peasy!