As a final summary of my Tour of Tuscany 2007, here are a few tips and resources to make eating gluten-free in Italy as easy as possible. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the awareness of Celiac disease and the meaning of gluten-free was much more prevalent in Italy than it currently is in the United States. However, that doesn’t mean that you can walk into every pizzeria, gelateria (ice cream shop) or paninoteca (sandwich shop) and find something safe to eat. With a little diligence and preparation though, you will eat more delicious Italian food that is completely gluten-free than I ever dreamed would be possible.
Tip #1 – Do your research
The Italian Celiac Association (AiC) has an extensive nation-wide listing of restaurants, gelaterie, and accommodations that are part of their gluten-free organization. Once you know what areas of the country or particular cities you are going to visit, check their site. Or you could even use the fact that a certain city has a large number of gluten-free restaurants to help plan your trip.
Tip #2 – Make a reservation
I almost missed eating at Buca di San Antonio and La Locanda del Vino Nobile because the original times we tried to get reservations were already booked. Luckily, my friends and I had a flexible enough schedule that we were able to adjust our plans.
Tip #3 – Call ahead and let them know you have Celiac and need to eat gluten-free
When making reservations, I initially assumed that if they were part of the gluten-free restaurant group that I didn’t need to let them know that I had Celiac until I arrived. While they could still make me a delicious and safe meal, extras like fresh-made gluten-free pasta and bread require advanced notice. It will also give restaurants that aren’t part of the Italian gluten-free restaurant group a chance to buy gluten-free pasta or bread from the market.
Tip #4 – Print out a supply of gluten-free restaurant cards
I am a big fan of the laminated, gluten-free restaurant cards you can purchase from Triumph Dining, but I wanted to have a big supply of “disposable” cards for this trip. I printed out 20 of these free cards I found at a CeliacTravel site. This is an incredible resource for more than just Italian gluten-free travel. I was lucky and didn’t need to use the cards during my trip, but I was glad to have them handy just in case.
Tip #5 – Find a Farmacia
If you have the opportunity to go to a large grocery story in Italy, you will find plenty of gluten-free cookies and frozen and boxed pastas and breads. However, in the city center the smaller markets will not usually carry a large selection. Instead, seek out a large Farmacia (Pharmacy). Celiac disease’s status as a medical condition means that the larger pharmacies carry gluten-free pasta and breads as well as some flour mixes and cookies. While I found many of the smaller pharmacies didn’t carry any gluten-free products, the larger ones usually had a pretty large selection. The pharmacy I came across in the city center of Lucca, offered an entire freezer of gluten-free goodies from gluten-free ravioli to gluten-free pastry dough. It is an interesting juxtaposition of goods in an otherwise sterile feeling environment, but it’s an incredible resource.
Tip #6 – You are on your own for breakfast
Most hotels that include breakfast serve an assortment of cereals and pastries. You might be able to get fruit or some meat or cheese at a larger buffet, but don’t count on it. I picked up yogurt, fruit, cheese and prosciutto at a local stand when I arrived in Lucca and kept that in the mini-bar fridge for breakfast.
Tip #7 – Prosciutto and cheese are your friends
Even at a restaurant that proclaims bread as its specialty was the site of an incredible gluten-free feast. During tours of the Carpazo and Salcheto vineyards we had pecorino and prosciutto with our tastings (enough for a small meal). Prosciutto, salumi (mixed Italian charcuterie), cheese and fruit (minus the bread) were a constant source of gluten-free food joy for me.
Tip #8 – Bring some non-perishables in your suitcase
Even with the best laid plans, it is sometimes difficult to find something safe to eat. As long as you have some gluten-free foods in your suitcase and carry-on, you never have to go hungry.
Tip #9 – Don’t count on the airlines for a gluten-free meal
Delta has recently added gluten-free back to its list of special menus, but I would never rely completely on an airline to feed me safely. For my flight back from Italy, I asked for a gluten-free meal but still brought plenty of fruit, meat, cheese and gluten-free crackers to get me through the trip. Thank goodness I did, because after initially serving me a “gluten-free meal” that included the gluten-laden roll and crackers they gave everyone else, I just didn’t feel comfortable eating the rest of the dish. During a trip to Scotland on Continental last year, they gave me the vegetarian meal instead of the gluten-free meal, which unfortunately I started to eat in my sleepy state. I have had three positive experiences with gluten-free meals on Continental and Delta, but you may end up sad, hungry or worse – sick if you rely on them completely.
Tip #10 – Travel with understanding friends
My incredible friends Katie, Eliana and Gareth took part in the gluten-free adventures rather than bemoaning the effort. In the end we frequently ended up with better food and more attention than we otherwise would have.
Bonus Tip – Try something new or unexpected
Gluten-free or not, sometimes the new or unusual things you have a chance to try may surprise you most. I love the fact that you can get pear juice in almost any bar in Italy. As my friends were drinking the typical Irish pub fare during a soccer match, I ordered a glass of pear juice deliciousness. Pate, something I didn’t think would ever be a source of joy for me, ended up being one of my favorite dishes at Poggio Antico. And don’t forget to enjoy all of the amazing sites and non-food related activities!
I hope this helps anyone planning a gluten-free trip to Italy. Please leave a comment if you have any other tips or advice for those of us trying to travel deliciously.
Below is a consolidated list of the restaurants and gelaterie I enjoyed during my gluten-free trip to Italy. Buon appetito!
Gli Orti Di Via Elisa
Buca di San Antonio
Florence / Firenze
Cantinetta del Verrazzano
La Locanda del Vino Nobile
La Terrazza del Chiostro
Antica Trattoria Botteganova