When I traveled to Italy earlier this year, I was pretty nervous. As someone with a gluten intolerance, the prospect of navigating restaurants full of pasta, pizza, and bread in a foreign language was more than a little daunting. To my amazement, however, Italy proved to be the most gluten-free-friendly place I’ve ever been! I had an amazing time, ate some great gluten-free food, and was not inadvertently “glutened” a single time.
One of the reasons I got along so well was simply because Italians as a whole seem to be much more aware of celiac disease and gluten than Americans are, at least in the places I visited (Naples, the Amalfi Coast area, Rome, and certain regions outside of Rome). One grocery store clerk even told me that in Italy, people with celiac disease are given a monthly stipend by the government to help pay for their increased food costs. I hope you’re taking notes here, American government!
Here are my tips for successfully navigating Italy on a gluten-free diet:
1. Start with low expectations. This is my standard first tip when traveling anywhere. While gluten-free options in Italy actually turned out to be quite abundant, I still found it helpful to set my expectations low to begin with. When you’re traveling, especially with other people who have their own food preferences and dietary needs, it may not always be possible to find or agree on a restaurant that has top-notch gluten-free cuisine. I told myself going into the trip that even if I could only eat plain fish and lettuce for every meal, I would still have a great time, because I was going to be in an incredible country with some of my favorite people. Every now and then, we did stop to eat somewhere where there weren’t many gluten-free options, and that was okay! I was mentally prepared.
2. Learn some key phrases. I was lucky to have my Italian-speaking aunt with me for most of my dining experiences, but during the times when I was on my own, I was glad that I at least knew how to say “senza glutine” (no gluten). Simply saying these two words was usually enough to get the point across. However, it may be helpful to have some other phrases in your arsenal, such as “Sono celiaco. Posso mangiare qui?” (I am a Celiac. Can I eat here?). I recommend writing them down or storing them as a note on your phone if remembering foreign languages is not your forte!
3. Print out and pack a dining card. Sometimes, verbal communication is just hard when you’re in a foreign country! In situations where you can’t think of the right words or your waiter is unable to understand you, it may be helpful to have something written out so that others can read what you are trying to say. I printed out one of these dining cards on card stock and carried it with me in my purse everywhere I went in Italy. I really didn’t have to use it, but it gave me peace of mind to know that it was there.
4. Do your research. Get on the Internet prior to your trip and look up gluten-free-friendly dining establishments in the cities you are visiting. This is especially helpful to do ahead of time if you will have limited WiFi access and/or little cell phone data available. In general, my experience in Italy was that you could walk into any restaurant (even in tiny towns!) and find gluten-free pasta or pizza, or at least a gluten-free secondi piatti option. But, with a little bit of research ahead of time, you may find restaurants that have designated gluten-free menus and can make it a point to visit those places.
I visited GlutenFreeTravelSite.com prior to our trip and found it helpful to read restaurant reviews from other gluten-free travelers. I also read several blog posts from other gluten-free folks who had visited Italy and had restaurants to recommend. Finally, I visited the website of the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (Italian Celiac Association), where I printed off lists of gluten-free restaurants in the various provinces I was visiting. These restaurants have all been trained by AIC and are monitored at least once per year.
By doing research ahead of time, I found Mama Eat, a restaurant in Rome (there is also a location in Naples) where everything on the menu can be made gluten-free. Naturally, I wanted to go! So, I made it a point to visit the neighborhood where the restaurant is located right around lunchtime so that I could enjoy all of the gluten-free goodness. We had a feast of bruschetta, croquettes, pizzas, tiramisu, and limoncello–all gluten-free! Heavenly.
5. Download the AiC Mobile app. The Associazione Italiana Celiachia has an incredibly helpful app, AiC Mobile (available via iTunes, Google Play, and the Microsoft Store), that allows you to look up certified celiac-friendly restaurants by province or by using your phone’s GPS. The app also allows you to look up grocery stores that carry gluten-free products and has a feature where you can scan a product’s bar code while grocery shopping to see whether it is gluten-free. The app is in Italian, which can be tricky at first, but playing around with it for a few minutes gets you acclimated pretty quickly. I didn’t purchase much cell phone data to use abroad, so I would usually try to plan ahead and use the app while I was connected to WiFi. Keep in mind, of course, that the app only lists “official” gluten-free restaurants that have been verified by AIC. There are plenty of other restaurants out there that have gluten-free options but are not listed on the app.
6. Eat at home. If you are staying at a villa or Airbnb property where kitchen facilities are available to guests, you can always cook a delicious gluten-free meal for yourself! Maybe the town that you’re in doesn’t have a lot of gluten-free options, or you’re just ready for a night in. Or, maybe you have a serious sensitivity and are worried about cross contamination in kitchens that have not been certified by AIC. Even in tiny town grocery stores in southern Italy, I was able to find plenty of gluten-free products. Just look for the “senza glutine” designation on the packaging. You may even find that you like the Italian versions of gluten-free products better than the ones you buy at home! The pasta and gnocchi I purchased at the Italian grocery stores were top notch.
7. Pack snacks. If push comes to shove and there simply isn’t a gluten-free option available to you when hunger strikes, it helps to have a snack with you to tide you over until you can find something. I always carried a snack or two around with me in Italy in case I was hungry and couldn’t easily get to gluten-free dining. There was never a time when I skipped a meal because there was nothing I could order, but there was an occasion or two (i.e. while inside the ruins of Pompeii) where salad was my only option, and having a Larabar to supplement the salad and really fill me up was helpful.
I hope these tips help you to have a fantastic gluten-free trip to Italy! Others who have traveled to Italy or other foreign countries, feel free to chime in with your own tips in the comments. Saluti!