In the homeland of pizza, pasta, biscotti and cannoli, one would assume that avoiding gluten has got to be one the toughest challenges. Here’s how you can easily do it.
Maybe it’s because Italians are so protective over their gastronomic tradition, but to the eyes of a traveller, Italy appears to be a true gluten free heaven!
In this extensive guide, I will share with you some of my best tips to finding gluten free food in Italy, where to find the best gluten free pizza and how to survive as a coeliac in Italy.
When I am abroad, my attention is often captured by those restaurants who boldly publicize their “gluten free menu”. My dreams go wild: I start to visualize piping hot plates of Pasta alla Carbonara, maybe even an amazing gluten free Crostata…
A first glimpse of the menu suffices to bring me back to reality. A thin list of items, mostly meat dishes and salads. And for dessert… a naked fruit platter. I’d rather eat at home. At least I can keep it exciting.
In Italy, forget about that. Gluten free restaurants here boost eclectic menus that go far and beyond any coeliac’s wildest dreams. Home made stuffed Tortellini, gluten free Tiramisu, hand rolled Piadina and gluten free Pizza crusts that taste exactly like the regular ones. And the list goes on and on….
In fact, the restaurant’s sensibility to gluten issues here in Italy is not just a trend you find in the big cities. It’s amazing to see that every small town has their way to treat the the gluten free eater: from the delicious home made gluten free croissants at “Caffe Letterario” in the picturesque Ravenna, to the mouthwatering Gnocchi al Ragù offered at “Trattoria La Speranza”, on the windy hills of Solferino, Mantua.
Thanks to the Italian Celiac Association (AIC), who for over 30 years has been engaged in raising awareness and inspiring laws for the protection of people with gluten related issues, Italy has tons of choices for eating out while staying away from gluten.
Especially in the last couple years, many pastry chefs, ice cream makers, bakers and pasta makers opened gluten free businesses with excellent results.
When in Bologna, for example you can enjoy their most typical dish, Lasagne Bolognese, in its home made gluten free version at “Rosarose Bistrot”. In Castelsardo, Sardinia you can love yourself a plate of traditional Sardinian Ravioli at “Rocca Ja”; and at “Il Torchio”, in Tignale on the Garda Lake, you can indulge in one of the best gluten free pizzas I have ever eaten.
Seriously. It’s so identical to the traditional one that the first time I ate there, I sent my pizza back to the kitchen, convinced that they brought me a regular wheat crust!
And did I mention some of my most recent discoveries like “Quinoa”, a full on gluten free fusion place in Florence, where you can enjoy samosas and Thai style tagliatelle, or “Glu Free”, a forneria in Milan that offers an amazing array of freshly baked products, from “Panzerotti” (small folded pizzas) to “Bignè” (delicious puff pastries filled with custard)?
To locate these places is fairly easy:
www.ristorantiperceliaci.net and www.pizzerieperceliaci.net are very helpful websites to discover restaurants and pizzerias that comply with the AIC regulations and operate in a separate gluten free kitchen.
The Italian Celiac Association has compiled a database called “Project Eating Out” that is constantly updated and connected to an app. You simply enter the city, specify what you are looking for, and it will provide you with a whole list of places where it’s safe for you to eat. The download is free: you need to register HERE and click on “Registrati”. If you don’t live in Italy, you can use AIC’s address: via Caffaro 10, Genova, GE, 16124, Italy.
So far, there are more than 3.800 eateries all over the country that have joined the AIC gluten free eating out program, but this number is always increasing. In fact, since celiac friendly restaurants are seriously taking over the food scene, you’ll find much more than what’s listed on the database simply by asking.
When you enter a restaurant, alert the staff about your issues with gluten (you can either say: “Sono celiaco” = “I am celiac” or “Sono intollerante al glutine” = “I am intolerant to gluten”), they’ll try to accommodate you the best way they can or address you to a nearby place where is safe for you to dine.
All of the Italian restaurants, pizzerias, bakeries and hotels that are allowed to brand themselves as gluten free friendly had to follow the strict AIC training program and they are monitored at least once a year to ensure the non contamination of their gluten free meals.
Even in cases in which you find yourself in a non certified GF restaurant, speak to the manager. Since 90% of these businesses are family run and most of the food is prepared in the moment by scratch, they will most likely be able to put together a safe meal.
Italian law is one of the best in the world for the protection of people with celiac disease: schools, hospitals, trains and cafeterias of government operated workplaces were required to upgrade their food supply with gluten free options.
The Italian Minister of Health has proven to be very sensitive on the gluten matter. In order to ensure the Italian people enjoy all of their country’s typical delicacies and consume a balanced diet, individuals with celiac disease are entitled to the provision of certified gluten free products for over 100 euros a month.
Finding coeliac friendly products is quite simple: all of the largest supermarket chains (such as Coop, Conad, Crai, Esselunga, Carrefour and Ali) have a dedicated gluten free isle, and in most cases they have their own lines of gluten-free products that allow people to save a decent amount of money when purchasing pasta or biscotti, as opposed to buying these items at the pharmacy like it was in the past.
Furthermore, there are specific organic markets called “negozio biologico” that specialize in niche products and offer an amazing variety of gluten free goods. These stores are scattered all over the country, from big cities to small towns, and they feature major gluten free brands as well as local manufacturers, who provide freshly baked bread and seasonal specials like “Panettone” for Christmas and “Colomba” for Easter.
And if you are wondering about one of Italy’s most renown specialties, gelato, don’t worry: almost every gelateria now offers gluten and dairy free cones so that you can safely enjoy this amazing artisanal chilled dessert, that’s now served in many eclectic dairy free flavors made with coconut, almond and soy milk.
Like in many other areas of life, the curse of the locals is that they can’t fully see what they have in front of them. It wasn’t until I started traveling to other countries that I realized how good the gluten free scene is in Italy.
The love for creativity and excellence that Italy is so proud of, led the gluten free food scene to become one of the best in the world. Because of their high standards when it comes to quality, the gluten free food culture here is simply better.
And you can bet a real pizzaiolo won’t stop trying until he creates the “perfect” pizza crust. Settling for “pretty good” is just not part of the culture.
Love and lots of gluten free pizza!
Born and raised in Italy, Ambra is a healthy recipe developer, food and travel writer with a passion for healthy living and wellness. She is the founder of 'Little Bites of Beauty" and the author of the cookbooks "Healthy Italian Desserts Made Simple" and "The AIP Italian Cookbook". She shares her daily food & travel adventures on her Instagram @LittleBitesofBeauty