Gluten-Free Italy: The Agony & The Ecstasy

14 Comments 10 February 2010

Ah, where do I begin? My trip to Italy was fantastico!! I went to Sardinia, Rome, and Tivoli. I can’t wait to tell you all about these amazing places, but I know you want me to start with the food!

For me, since I’m a freak of nature with dairy and corn allergies on top of gluten issues, eating was the “Agony” part of the trip. But don’t you worry! If any one of you has been afraid to go to Italy due to just your gluten-free diet restrictions, don’t let fear hold you back anymore! Armed with the restaurant listings and phrases in Maria Rogilieri’s book The Gluten-Free Guide To Italy you should have no problem navigating this land of sensory overload.

However, if you have additional food allergies, like me, then you’ll definitely need to familiarize yourself with the traditional ingredients in classic Italian dishes. I especially appreciated Let's Eat Out! Your Passport For Living Gluten And Allergy Free for this. I also  love it that this book has charts including other allergens in typical dishes and the food phrases in various languages pertaining to them. This was indispensable when it came to creating my personal gluten-, corn-, and dairy-free dining card.

And, I recommend that anyone with any food restriction situation pack plenty of food for the long flight, breakfast, lunch and snacks. Your tummy will thank you later!

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but it seems that you still can’t entirely trust an airline to serve you a gluten-free meal. Add additional food allergy issues into the mix and you are more than likely going to be disappointed by your in-flight meal and snacks.

Even though my chicken entrée was gluten-free on the way to Italy, it was microscopic. The roll was gluten-free, which was a nice touch, but because I didn’t know what was in it exactly and feared my corn induced rash, I had my friend taste it for me. She said it was "disgusting". It also smelled weird. Nice try, though, Swiss Air. (Guess I should have taken a photo, but I was so underwhelmed…)

On the way back, depleted of all of my snacks other than some Amaretti cookies, I almost starved to death! They handed out some sort of chicken curry wraps that were pretty small, and when I asked for my gluten-free meal, they brought me an apple and a pear wrapped in cellophane with a sticker that was labeled “GF Meal”. I was tempted to throw the fruit at someone, but I'm happy to report that I behaved.

I’m soooo glad that I brought along a bunch of Trader Joe’s individual snack packs of cashews, two rounds of imported Spanish chorizo (my latest food obsession from Murray’s Meats in Grand Central Market), and a ton of Trader Joe’s natural fruit leathers.

Oh, and Surf Sweets had sent me some samples of their corn-free gummy worms, bears, etc. that I threw in my bag last minute and and I'm proud to say that I even shared some  of them with my friends. I can't even tell you how long it had been since I had enjoyed a gummy candy! The big kid in me thoroughly enjoyed them.

As soon as you can, try to find a “Pharmacia” and/or a health food store in the city to stock up on gluten-free foods. The pharmacies are on just about every corner, so you should have no problem finding one. They all seemed to have at least one shelf full of gluten-free food products, including pasta. This didn’t help me because they were all Schar products, which are full of corn starch. (Hey Schar, if you are listening, please make a few gluten-free products that don’t contain corn or dairy! Thank-you-very-much.)

Unless you stay in a hotel or B&B that will serve you gluten-free breakfast, a substantial gluten-free breakfast is going to be very hard for you to find. The Gluten-Free Guide To Italy lists hotels and B&B’s that will accommodate you.

Italians basically just drink espresso and eat sweet pastries for breakfast. Healthy, eh?! One of the more extensive breakfasts I encountered at a hotel included cold cuts of ham and yogurt. Still, unless you really like eating prosciutto for breaky, you're not going to be able to find much dairy-free protein anywhere. This is why it might be helpful to stay somewhere with access to a kitchen, or else drop ship a bunch of high protein power bars to your accommodations.

A common Italian food for lunch are quick and delicious looking sandwiches at "café bars". For gluten eaters, these were a bargain compared to a sit down ristorante lunch. I usually found some sort of grilled veggies or a salad topped with tuna, egg and olives. Exciting? No, but at this point I was just grateful to find anything to eat other than my cashews and fruit leathers!

One lovely ristorante we found had a great buffet table for lunch that was reasonably priced and full of safe options of seafood and grilled vegetables. I know some of you are leery of buffets, but this one had more naturally gluten-free options on it than breaded items, so I felt pretty safe sticking to the “safe” side of the table, which included lots and lots of vegetables in olive oil.

One thing that surprised us as tough New Yorkers was that we got really tired walking around Rome all day long. Was it walking on the uneven ancient cobble stones? The heat? The historic and artistic sensory overload? Or the adrenaline drain from risking our lives trying to cross the street? Maybe the combination of all of the above? (Note: I noticed that there are tour buses that might actually be a worthwhile investment. They take you to all of the major sights and may include some admissions. If I ever go back, I will definitely look into this option.)

I guarantee that at some point you’ll need to take a break to rest your tootsies and order an espresso. Plus, this seems to be part of the cool culture of Italy. In my case, in order to keep my positive attitude despite my hunger pains at times, I opted for a crisp cold glass of Champagne, otherwise known in Italy as Frascati or Prosecco. If you find yourself in the same situation, just focus on the positive. You’ll end up getting more fun out of your euros drinking on an empty stomach! [wink]

There is no need while touring the town to spend lots of money on bottled water. Rome’s amazing aqueducts still supply potable, and surprisingly cool, water to public fountains all over the place. Anytime you see one, remind yourself to drink more water, and refill your bottle. There’s something fun about this and it’s free and green!

Rome Coconut Stand

I was impressed by how much the Romans enjoy fresh seasonal fruit. There were plenty of lovely fruit stands around and this was where I often turned for a healthy snack or meager breakfast. I especially liked the fresh coconut! Why doesn't someone start a coconut stand in NYC?!


Rome Dinner 

There were plenty of seafood dishes for me to order at most restaurants. (Please ignore the French fries in the photo.) I also ate plenty of grilled vegetables with prosciutto. I think it is going to be a few years before I can eat prosciutto again.

At times I was internally panicking due to hunger and a scarcity mentality based on the language barriers and my many food issues, but I didn't want my friends to worry. I didn't want to encroach on their free wheeling normal trip lifestyle. They were really good sports, but a few times I didn't want them to worry about if I was hungry or not. I had to fake a few times that I was perfectly fine just having Prosecco and grilled vegetables for dinner. I also didn't want to dominate the trip and make them eat at only restaurants listed in The Gluten-Free Guide To Italy, so we would just plop down somewhere to eat once we realized we were hungry.  Besides, I had a feeling that if restaurants just used Schar products for their gluten-free menu items I couldn't really enjoy them anyway due to the added corn. So, I just used my handy dandy Italian/English restaurant card everywhere we went. It worked…most of the time. I'll share a funny story with you soon in another blog post.


Rome Melon 

Why do we have to make everything so complicated? One of the most refreshing and tasty desserts I ate in Rome was melon balls in port. Definitely less fattening than tiramisu, and delicious!

So, there you have it. My lackluster report on what I ate in Italy. Yes, at times I was hungry and I had to drown my sorrows in Prosecco, but the "Ecstasy" part of the trip was worth it!

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Your Comments

14 Comments so far

  1. 1
    Jennifer says:

    We went to Italy on our honeymoon in 2008 and I found it MUCH more difficult to eat there than in other European cities like Paris. Especially breakfast.

  2. 2
    Kelly says:

    Hi Jen! Thanks for your input! Nice to hear from you.
    The Gluten-Free Guide to Italy has loads of places listed in it with gf food, but the problem is, in my opinion, is that you would have to have a plan every day of where you were going to eat…and when you are disoriented in a new town it can be hard to be that organized. At least that is how I roll when on vacation.

  3. 3
    Nina says:

    Jennifer, Where did you eat in Paris? We’ll be headed there soon.

  4. 4
    Nina says:

    We were in Italy a couple of times. Renting an apartment is awesome. You can cook up whatever you like and make it gluten-free. You can walk the town and gather fresh ingredients, chatting with the locals (knowing a bit of Italian helps)…then you go back to your place, tie on the apron, pour a glass of vino, stir the pot, and hang out the balcony watching the day go by just like the locals do. I had fun yacking with the signora in the next balcony. She was really sweet, even tho my Italian (I’m sure) stunk. When dinner is ready, you can sit down and trust what you’re eating…then, go out into town later for an expresso.

  5. 5
    Karen says:

    Ahh, but you got to go to Italy. And that would be worth a bit of hunger for me.

  6. 6
    bueller says:

    I was just in Italy. I have the same allergies but also have meat allergies so I totally appreciate your plane frustrations. I just usually give up entirely and bring nuts and stuff. Great post!

  7. 7
    Aileen says:


    Love your post. I feel your pain on the airplane. It’s especially disturbing having to eat a piece of fruit when all around you is the aroma of nice hot meals! When are they going to get with it? It’s not that difficult to produce a delicious gf meal. (not sure about the cf and/or df)

    And I cannot ignore those fries! I can’t tell you how many times in Paris we subsisted on Frites avec Mayo. My weakness. The rest of the time we bought fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and wine making our own meals. Très façile!

    Also, on our honeymoon in Paris we took the bus trip around the city so that we could get an overview then went back to the places that really interested us. Very helpful. We suggest the same for any tourists to NYC too. The best deal.

    Oh, and for those who loved Les Mis, you must check out the sewers of Paris. It’s a tour and museum. I know, totally off subject. 🙂

  8. 8
    Alessandro says:

    Hi Kelly, I’m sorry you can not eat ham shortly. However, if you happen to shop in New York made this order: (not just spam and I really like) is really fantastic baked in a wood fire with aromatic herbs. Hello

  9. 9

    Good post! My husband is anxious to go to Italy and I’m very concerned about suffering from hunger or hidden allergens. My allergies include wheat, all cow dairy products, yeast, fermented foods, black pepper, citrus, berries… and I don’t speak Italian. Even eating out in the USA is difficult – I send stuff back to the kitchen fairly often because they ignore requests. It’s not fun.

  10. 10
    DONIS says:

    Dear All; I am 34 years old and have just learnt last week that I am celiac. I have started to search many things and I think everybody knows that it is not a easy period for me. I found this web site while searching whether prosecco is gluten free or not. Many different opinoins I found on the web for wine, prosecco and champagne…Please if anybody knows well, and inform me those alcohols are gluten free or not. Do we need to contact also the manufacturers? many thanks for any comments.

  11. 11
    rebekah says:

    Nice post! I have just got back from a trip to Italy – we travelled to Venice and Rome and I ate really well….GF pizza was the highlight of my trip!!

      Michelle says:

      Wine & champagne are made from grapes and are ok. Whiskey, beers, most other alcohol are made from grain. Stick to Rum, Tequila (yuck), wine & potato or grape vodka (Chopin or Ciroc brands) and you’ll be fine.

  12. 12
    colin says:

    Having travelled the world, eating with my issue of severe lactose intolerance has always been a problem. hotels in Tunisia where only butter was served after 9am (managed to sneak a few mini tubs of marj at breakfast. now have booked a week in Sardinia and was wondering how someone with similar food issues survives. So thanks for the account of your trip. airline ‘food’, well, last time I had any, the only item I could eat was the box it came in.


  1. » Eating Gluten-Free In Italy - February 4, 2013

    […] Gluten-Free Italy: The Agony & the Ecstasy What to expect when you travel to Italy from my personal experience. […]

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Kelly Courson


Thanks for stopping by! I'm Kelly Courson and this is where I've shared my gluten-free finds since 2003. The world has been my gluten-free oyster for 14 years now and I love sharing what I've learned in order to help others adapt to a gluten-free diet. Have a look around and feel free to leave a comment. Connecting with people like you is what has kept me going this long! Seriously.

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