Monday, November 26, 2007

Eating Gluten-Free in Italy: A Primer

A typical Italian breakfast consists of a pastry and a cup of cappuccino (a coffee concoction of espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk). In some small hotels, and especially in Italian B&B’s, this may be the only items offered. Some larger hotels offer a breakfast buffet, with yogurt, cheese, and possibly eggs. I’ve fared the best in my travels around Italy when I’ve carried my own breakfast food. Almost any farmacia will stock at least a couple gluten-free products, such as bread, muffins, cereal, crackers, and cookies, so it’s not necessary to carry an entire vacation’s supply from home!

Lunch is easier to do gluten-free, although sometimes frustrating when the quickest and cheapest foods seem to be the kind that are off-limits – pizza and panini (sandwiches). A fast and somewhat inexpensive option is to find a tavola calda (warm table), which is a buffet that serves meats, vegetables, cheeses, salads, and fruits, in addition to regular pasta dishes. Another choice, especially if the weather is fine, is to picnic. I have fond memories of shopping the outdoor market at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, buying cheese from one vendor, cherry tomatoes from another, and fruit from yet another, and then sitting at the base of a statue in the square, feasting amidst the hubbub of Roman life. Alimentari (small specialty shops) and supermercato (grocery store) are also great places to pick up picnic items. Some of the larger grocery stores also carry gluten-free items.

Dinner offers the most variety to celiacs, and there are several types of restaurants to choose from: ristorante (usually fancier with extensive menus), osteria (serves regional food and has a wine bar), trattoria (casual family-run place), and pizzeria.

A typical Italian menu consists of several sections. First is the antipasto (appetizer), then the primo piatto (first course that is usually pasta but also can be soup or rice), secondo piatto (second course of meat or fish), and contorno (side dish/vegetable). If a place serves pizza, that gets its own section. There also may be listings for formaggio (cheese) and dolce (dessert). It’s not necessary to order from every section! I usually can find a safe antipasto and secondo for a complete meal.

Fortunately, for both residents and visitors to Italy, there is an Italian Celiac Association (AIC), with active local support groups. Their biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the establishment of a gluten-free restaurant training program. Restaurants, pizzerias, agriturismi, and hotels can receive this training. Then, the AIC includes the business’ information on its website, The list can be accessed either by going directly to the “Ristorazione” section of the website, or by clicking on the segment created especially for English-speaking travelers. Entitled “Vademecum for the Celiac Voyager,” this area has lots of helpful information for tourists, including a section called “Choosing at the Restaurant,” that offers suggestions for the safest food when not dining at an AIC-trained dining establishment. As well, there is a part called “Prontuario” that lists commercially available gluten-free products. When eating in an Italian Celiac Association trained restaurant, it will almost always have gluten-free pasta, so I always make it a point to have a primo!

And what about gelato? More often than no, I eat it. While the AIC maintains a list of specially trained gelateria, they are few and far between. So, after talking with a few places and being shown ingredient lists, I’ve decided that eating gelato is generally a safe bet. It’s interesting to note that gelato flavors also change with the season because of the use of fresh ingredients! As at any ice cream shop, though, it’s important to understand that scoops can come into contact with cones, and cone pieces can fall into the gelato. It also goes without saying not to order any flavors that contain gluten items, such as tiramisu, and to remember to ask for it in a coppa (cup). My favorite flavors are fragolino (strawberry) and fiore di latte (flower of milk).

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