Did you know that one out of 100 Italians has celiac disease? And I bet you didn’t expect that in Italy, celiacs receive a handsome monthly allowance from the government for gluten-free foods; and that by law, gluten-free ingredients and meals must be available to Italian celiacs in schools, hospitals, and public places, like malls and cinemas. Would you expect that in a country where regulations are so flamboyantly mis-attended, and the needs of minorities so often overlooked, all pharmacy products (including prescriptions, baby food, cosmetics and vitamin supplements) are required to indicate the presence of gluten on labels, as well as on all packaged food labels?
Italy: Perfect for Gluten-free Travelers
Italy appears like the last place where celiacs would enjoy a gluten-free lifestyle, considering pasta, pizza, bread, beer, salumi, and other staples regularly associated with Italian food culture. But celiacs in Italy can dine sans wheat at every meal, and out of necessity, quality and tradition aren’t overlooked. Despite the recent surge in celiac disease worldwide, Italy was surprisingly quick in adapting to the needs of celiacs, modifying menus to include gluten-free foods and introducing kosher cooking methods early on in the “integration” process.
Both informal and gourmet restaurants in Italy now strongly foster change by catering to guests with special diet needs. It’s no surprise then, that many Italian Michelin-awarded restaurants and haute cuisine shrines are turning to include celiacs in their lofty clientele. Many non-celiacs are switching to gluten-free regimes in Italy, too – a widespread social phenomenon which begs further research.
What is gluten, anyway? It’s a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat, that is responsible for the elastic tissue of dough. As a mixture of two proteins, it causes illness and intolerance in people with celiac disease.
Prepare for Your Flight
If you’re traveling to Italy as a celiac and don’t want to miss out on eating out, there are many resources you can rely on. Starting with your flight, Alitalia (Italy’s flagship airline) – as well as other vectors that fly into Italy from the US, like British Airways, KLM, Air France, United, and Lufthansa – offer special meals for coach, business, and first class celiac passengers. All that’s needed to assure GF in-flight meals is the international code “GFML” when reserving seats.
Associazione Italiana Celiachia, the Italian celiac disease association born in 1979, promotes assistance to Italian and visiting celiacs and their families; keeps tight bonds with the Italian medical world, researching novel diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities; constantly pressures social and political structures into further integration; and sets guidelines as a veritable quality control organ, scouting and deeming Italian facilities fit – or not – for the GF restaurant network it monitors.
Along with intolerance-awareness website Celiachiamo.com, GF travel website Glutenfree Roads, and vacation planning website Vacanzeperceliaci.com, resident celiacs or those visiting Italy are well-informed, protected, and given wide choice in their restricted eating predicament.
Find Delicious Food
Special gluten-free menus in AIC-approved eateries that have separated, if not entirely, at least part of their kitchen and cooking tools to avoid contact with gluten, feature delicious wheatless pasta, stuffed ravioli, flourless potato gnocchi, and fresh homemade fettuccine; stellar homestyle breads, pizza pies, focaccia and ciabatta style bread, crackers and saltines, snacks and antipasto fritti (fried veggies dredged in celiac-approved breadcrumbs), and GF bruschetta, washed down with cereal-free craft beer.
In the dessert department, Italian celiacs can libreally enjoy tortas, biscotti, cakes, crostatas, croissants, and gluten-free marmalade tarts, wheatless ladyfingers in their tasty tiramisù, as well as gelato and sorbets served in flourless cones.
Polenta, which is slow-cooked cornmeal, was historically consumed as typical northern Italian peasant food long before it became trendy overseas, thanks to its low cost per high yield ratio. Polenta is, you guessed it, totally gluten-free.
Another celiac-friendly Italian staple is rice. Picture sexy rice-picker Silvana Mangano wiping sweat off her brow in the 1949 neo-realist film Riso Amaro. Her rotund, bare legs wading through rice paddies should be the masthead for fine gluten-free dining; thanks to risotto, celiacs in Italy can enjoy life a little more with each spoonful of creaminess.
Grano Saraceno (buckwheat) is another common Italian celiac-friendly ingredient. If you’re traveling to Lombardy, in the Alps of Valtellina, you can OD on local “pizzoccheri” pasta baked with Swiss chard and potatoes, layered with artisan cheese, dressed with garlic and sage sautéed in browned butter.
You’d give a limb for a perfect slice of authentic Italian pizza, but you’re afraid your celiac condition might turn this craving into a nightmare? No worries. Italy counts 500+ DS PizzaPoint restaurants spread across the entire peninsula, from Sicily to South Tyrol. All pizza joints in the network embrace the concept of modern gluten-free cuisine and receive specialist training on safe, uncontaminated GF cooking.
All Italian grocery stores and markets have a GF section, carrying basics like pasta, bread, crackers, and other baked products. There are also iPhone Apps you can download: Guida Rapida Celiaci and Mangiare Senza Glutine guides help users find restaurants, pizzerias, hotels, cafes, and gelaterie that offer gluten-free food.
If you’re traveling to smaller, more remote Italian locations and worry the chef may be unfamiliar with the details of your gluten-free diet, here is something you can print out and show the waiter before ordering your meal:
“Io soffro di celiachia e devo seguire un’alimentazione completamente priva di glutine. Per questo motivo non posso assumere alimenti che contengano neanche le più piccole tracce di frumento, segala, orzo, avena, farro e frumento verde essicato, compresi prodotti derivati, come il pangrattato, crostini, grissini, sbriciolata, pasta spezzata, eccetera.”
No longer approached as a restaurant stigma, celiacs in Italy can enjoy the same fine dining rights as everyone else.
Takeaway Tip: Feeling some hunger pangs for gluten-free Italian food? Here is a fantastic list to get you started at home.
Photo Credits: giffconstable, Olga Vasiljeva, and David Burn