If you have Celiac Disease or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, traveling to Italy, the pizza and pasta capital of the world, may seem like a nightmare waiting to happen. After all, it’s difficult enough to avoid gluten cross-contamination in your own country where you speak the same language as your waiter!
Many first-time Italian travelers have a misconception that they cannot enjoy the same once-in-a-lifetime authentic Italian cuisine as their gluten-eating counterparts. But, in my experience as an Italian expat living gluten-free in Italy, this could not be further from the truth. However, with a slew of blogs on traveling Italy gluten-free it’s only human to feel completely overwhelmed by all the information.
When I first came to Italy, my husband, Giovanni, was there every step of the way to ensure that my dining experiences were gluten-free and safe for me to eat – even during our Italian wedding! Which numerous celiacs from Italy and abroad attended.
While still perfecting my Italian skills, I had a guide to navigating conversations with servers and finding all the best Celiac-safe restaurants.
But what if you don’t have an Italian husband by your side to help? Traveling across Italy Gluten-Free can seem daunting, with disaster waiting to happen. As someone who has traveled the country to find the best Gluten-Free authentic Italian food and learned all the handy tips and tricks, this ultimate guide is the perfect starting point for a first-time traveler.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SPEAK UP
As many Celiacs know, a restaurant stating an item is “gluten-free” doesn’t always mean you are safe from cross-contamination. The same is true in Italy – which is why it’s so important to let your waiter know as soon as you’re seated for your meal that you have Celiac Disease and to ensure that they understand how to safely prepare food gluten-free that is safe for the celiac diner.
If there’s one Italian phrase you memorize before your trip, let it be this: “Sono celiaca” – I am Celiac. Communicating this with the restaurant when you reserve and with your waiter when you arrive at the restaurant will notify the kitchen staff to take the proper precautions in order to avoid gluten contamination. Remember, your waiter is your inside communication to the kitchen. At any Celiac-safe restaurant they’ll be able to give you new menu suggestions and specials that are delicious and safe for you to eat!
Calling the restaurant before your arrival is crucial, even with restaurants that are certified by Italy’s National Celiac organization. Many of these restaurants don’t just serve gluten-free foods and to be ready for your visit they require notification in advance. Some of the best places to enjoy authentic gluten-free Italian cuisine are small and preparation for these hidden gems is key to avoiding the dreaded Vacation Glutenation
Pro-tip: calling ahead can give the kitchen time to prepare in order to lower the risk of cross-contamination. Don’t forget to check the restaurant’s hours.
(Remember – most Italian restaurants close mid-day and don’t open until around 8 PM, so be sure to call during opening hours)
There’s no need to feel embarrassment or shame when identifying yourself as gluten-free. It is always better to ask the “uncomfortable” question than to end up sick for the rest of your trip.
Many accidental gluten disasters are the result of celiacs identifying themselves just as gluten intolerant or assuming that something is gluten-free. A miscommunication that could have been easily avoided by informing the restaurant and your waiter well in advance of your celiac dining experience.
One of the lovely things about the local dining culture is that dining out in Italy is an opportunity to spend time together. This is why many Italians do their best to accommodate Celiacs as they believe that everyone should be able to gather around the table and share a meal together, regardless of food allergies or health concerns. Because in Italy, the majority of Italians understand that celiac is a disease – and requiring a gluten-free diet is not a fad but essential for celiacs to live a healthy life.
Pro-tip: Not sure where to start for Gluten-Free dining? When in doubt, check the AIC (National Celiac Organization) Website for more resources on finding Celiac-safe venues across Italy! Many restaurants will also display the AIC symbol on their menus. However, remember this is not a guarantee of “good” or “authentic” Italian food and that you must always identify yourself as a celiac regardless if it is an AIC venue or not.
DITCH THE I PRIMI FOR THE SECONDI DISHES
While it is possible to eat authentic Italian food gluten-free, there are some areas that we recommend steering clear of to minimize risk, especially when there is a language barrier and many foreigners who dine gluten-free are doing it for a lifestyle choice and not because they have Celiac disease or a severe intolerance/allergy to gluten.
On menus in Italy, many dishes listed as i primi (“First Dishes”) are a landscape of gluten-filled dishes you’ll generally want to avoid. Even items listed as risotto or zuppa (soup) which may seem gluten-free, often contain gluten-filled ingredients like orzo (barley), farro (spelt) or may be creamed with a broth that contains gluten..
Another phrase you’ll want to memorize: “Senza glutine?” – without gluten. If a dish catches your eye, you can always ask if the kitchen can make the dish without gluten. When possible, your waiter will be able to accommodate your request and if not they’ll be able to suggest a similar dish that is gluten-free or celiac safe depending on your dining requirements.
However, it’s important to be aware that when making adjustments to dishes, the kitchen staff are used to making with gluten ingredients. Kitchen staff and waiters are only human, and when they’re used to making a dish a certain way, there can be a risk of accidents. Yes, even at venues that are certified by Italy’s National Celiac Association, because the reality is there is no 100% guarantee when dining outside of your own kitchen. Instead, there are only methods and actions that you can take to eliminate the risk of gluten cross-contamination and that’s why we’ve listed numerous phrases and tips to help you do that.
Pro-Tip: When in doubt if the dish served to you is actually gluten-free, don’t hesitate to confirm with your waiter before digging in.
Inevitably, there are certain dishes you will have to avoid. But, if you’re just learning the ropes of gluten-free Italy, the secondi – “second dish” is almost always a safe bet. The secondi is often a selection of grilled meat, fish, or vegetables that never go near any breaded menu items. Don’t forget to order side dishes to make a delicious meal from your secondi.
With that being said, there are a few red flags in the second dish area of the menu. Grilled fish is often served with seasoned bread crumbs and some braised meats include a sauce that has been thickened with flour.
Always confirm with your waiter before assuming all grilled meats or fish that are naturally gluten-free were actually prepared Celiac-safe and have not come in contact with the same cooking surfaces as gluten containing ingredients.
Pro-tip: When you order the secondi, don’t forget to ask the waiter, “Potrebbe portarmi tutto insieme?” – Can you bring everything together? Otherwise, your waiter won’t bring your side dishes until you finish your main dish!
VINO IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
If Italians are serious about their food, they’re even more serious about their wines! With top-notch quality control of wine production across Italy, you’ll never find an ounce of gluten in your vino.
Whether it’s a bold red or a sweet dessert wine, a post-dinner pour can often satisfy your sweet tooth safely. Wine is always a safe bet and there are a plethora of Italian wines that are naturally gluten-free that you’ll be able to taste on your gluten-free Italy trip with us!
But, if you still haven’t satisfied that sweet tooth, you can always opt for an AIC-certified gelateria to grab yourself a scoop or two of the Italian classic.
Pro-Tip: Going in for the “Dolci” (desserts), be aware that not all gelato, sorbetto or pannacotta are naturally gluten-free. Gelato/sorbetto are often cross-contaminated via scooping, or the use of cones that are not gluten-free. Pannacotta, on the other hand, doesn’t always use gluten-free gelatin to thicken it, so make sure to ask before ordering.
FIND A GLUTEN-FREE ITALY TOUR GUIDE
On my yearly trips to Italy, I was lucky to have an Italian husband to help safely guide me through the gluten-free Italian dining scene. But I know, you don’t necessarily have an Italian husband in your back pocket who is on the lookout for gluten and understands how to prepare celiac safe food!
If you’re anything like I was when preparing for my first gluten-free Italy trip, then I’m willing to bet this isn’t the only gluten-free guide to Italian dining you’ve read in preparation for your upcoming Italian vacation – you are not alone if you’re feeling burnt out and riddled with travel anxiety before packing your bags!
P.S. – If packing your bags is also stressing you out, read our Ultimate Italy Packing Guide HERE!
Traveling Italy gluten-free with a little extra planning and preparation is possible. But, let’s face it, a gluten-free dining card can only get you so far – it may keep you safe but all too often ends up in your culinary experience being bland and uninspiring. Without the proper guidance, you may leave some restaurants feeling unsatisfied and wishing you could eat what your travel partners eat.
Living and traveling gluten-free in Italy myself, I’m here to tell you it does not have to be this way. You didn’t come to Italy to eat “gluten-free,” you came to Italy to eat the damn good authentic Italian cuisine everyone talks about! I have eaten everything I’ve wanted and haven’t just had to settle for pre-packaged, processed foods. Italy should be for everyone, regardless of food allergies or sensitivities and I am here to show you how!
We started accommodating gluten-free travelers based on this principle – You don’t come to Italy to eat gummy gluten-free pasta and plain chicken! You want the real deal.
On our gluten-free Italy tour itineraries, you don’t have to miss out on any of the authentic dining experiences. When you travel with us, we’ve got your back. You don’t have to deal with pre-trip anxiety or excessive planning and preparations. All of the work to ensure your food is safe and delicious is already done!
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