For many people with an allergy or intolerance to gluten, going on holiday to Italy (i.e the land of pizza and pasta) is understandably daunting. However, on a recent trip to Rome I came to realise that not only was finding wheat and gluten-free options a whole lot easier than expected, but coeliac disease is actually taken incredibly seriously with all Italian children tested as part of normal health screenings.
Sufferers are provided with a monthly allowance to cover any additional food costs and, thankfully for us tourists, the strict labelling guidelines mean that all gluten-free approved foods and restaurants are clearly identified and government certified. What’s even more impressive is the the variety and quality of what’s available. This is gluten-free Italian produce intended for Italian taste buds, and if you know what to look out for there’s really no reason why anyone with an allergy should miss out on a pizza the action.
Translating as ‘without gluten’, this single phrase is your secret to safe-eating in Italy, and will be widely understood by waiters, waitresses and shop assistants. For a very slight surcharge, many restaurants offer gluten-free pasta and pizzas as an alternative to the standard menu, either making their own from fresh in-house or buying them in pre-made. The pizza bases in particular proved notably superior to any gluten-free pizza I have tried in the UK, with even the bought-in bases barely indistinguishable from your standard freshly kneaded wheat version. There are of course also a number of traditional Roman dishes which are naturally without gluten, the abbacchio al forno con le patate (roast lamb with potatoes) I tried at Da Felice a Testaccio easily my favourite meal of the trip. Gelato, too, tends to be gluten-free* and easy to come by wherever you are in Rome. Churned at a slower speed than ice cream and made with a greater proportion of whole milk to cream, Italian gelato is the pinnacle of melt-in-your-mouth desserts and for me nothing quite matched the dreamy heights of the pistachio and chocolate gelato we tried from this Gelateria in Trastevere.
Even if a restaurant does not serve gluten-free dishes, coeliac disease is so well-known in Rome that it is always worth speaking to the owner or manager before your visit to see if they will cook the dried gluten-free pasta, pizza base or bread you have brought with you in advance. Many will be happy to cater to your requirements and, thanks to the Italian Coeliac Society, will be familiar with the need to keep ingredients separate in the kitchen and how to avoid cross-contamination.
Restaurant help card
If, like me, your Italian vocabulary is somewhat lacking, you may need a little help when trying to communicate your dietary requirements. This is when the handy restaurant cards from Celiac Travel step in. This series of professionally translated cards are specifically designed to be carried by people with coeliac disease, clearly stating the holders need for gluten-free food and what that means – in the language of the country they’re visiting. Simply download and print the card before you travel and keep in your purse or bag at all times. The cards are completely free to download and use, but the website owners do ask for a small donation of $5 (or whatever you can afford) to help toward the running of the site.
Click here to download the Italian Restaurant Card.
Pop to the shop (or even pharmacy)
With so many supermarkets and specialist food stores, finding gluten-free products to buy and bring home from Rome is not at all difficult. However, what’s also worth knowing is that many of the pharmacies (farmacia) also stock gluten-free foods, including a selection of spaghetti, cakes, biscuits, wafers, crackers and grissini. We visited the giant food hall Eataly in Testaccio where, within the four-floors of artisan Italian produce, we were able to stock up on high quality gluten-free goods for a comparable price to what you would pay in the UK.
Ultimately, awareness of coeliac disease in Italy is strong and ordering ‘senza glutine’ is often met with as much concern as an understanding of what is involved and, more importantly, what is off limits. Because for Italians, food is everything and coeliac disease is taken as seriously as any other medical condition – the AiC estimating nearly half a million Italians suffer from the disease. Even since returning from Rome I have continued to order Italian gluten-free pasta brands (check out Free From Italy and Elena’s Gluten Free Way for a huge selection of high quality dried pastas at supermarket prices) and remain truly inspired by just how unrestricted a gluten-free diet can be.