We approached our Italian holiday and family wedding with some trepidation... one of our traveling companions had celiac disease . That means that he could not eat anything that contained gluten which includes anything made with regular wheat flour, barley or rye. It is not an optional restriction, because celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disorder that can cause serious health consequences. Like others who avoid gluten because of allergies or intolerances that can cause inflammation, we were a bit glum about his missing out on the delights found in the il paese della pasta (the land of pasta)... not to mention pizza, gnocchi and bread at best... or getting rather ill at worst.
We did a little online research before leaving that offered some hope. We were continually surprised at how easy it was to have a gluten free diet and still enjoy the pleasures of traditional Italian food, even in remote restaurants and villages.
We discovered, for instance that celiac disease is quite common in Italy and that there is a high awareness of it among doctors and the general population. Almost all children are tested for it by a certain age. Once diagnosed, doctors write a prescription for gluten free foods that are readily available in most pharmacies. Individuals suffering from the disorder get government subsidies to pay for the special foods required. We were thrilled at the selection and quality. The Italians have a pretty high standard for their pastas, so much has been done to develop great substitutes, using rice, corn or other grains. They weren't gummy when cooked, like many American counterparts. There were even some lovely toasts and crostini to use for cheese and antipastos like the classic Tuscan bruschetta.
The first big test was dinner at the hotel for the out of town wedding guests which consisted of an antipasto and pasta buffet and fresh fruit for dessert. We delivered a box of pasta purchased at our stopover in Rome and the chef saw to it that it was cooked, in a separate pot of fresh water, and tossed with the pomodoro sauce that was served to everyone else. Delicious. Then there was the nine course wedding luncheon that we attended the next day. We needn't have worried. The groom, an Italian physician, amidst all the last minute wedding arrangements, graciously talked to the chef. Waiters carefully delivered each course tailored to exclude gluten in sauces or side dishes and substituted gluten free pasta for two dishes.
Other restaurants, too, were most accommodating. With even limited Italian at our disposal, we needed only to say "Senza Glutine" and the waiter would scurry into the kitchen to bring out an assortment of pastas to choose from to cook separately and top with an appropriate sauce. One rather chic restaurant in Lucca, Ammodonostro Ristorante, which we stumbled on one rainy afternoon, offered a gluten free menu. We tried the rice gnocchi, a lighter version of its traditional cousins made with semolina, or potato and durum wheat flours. It was served with fresh tomatoes and basil and a spearate basket of gluten free bread and toasts. Viva Italia!
At other restaurants, we brought our own pasta, just in case, and toasts to dip in the luscious Tuscan olive oils we found at every table. One local restaurant, which we frequented in a nearby town, remembered us and the dietary restrictions and made sure nothing was ordered that would do harm. Of course, delightful alternatives to pasta, such as creamy polentas and risottos, are abundant in Italy and were usually present on most menus. The bottom line is that you needn't worry about getting enough good food in Italy.
One lesson we learned however is that when it comes to airline food -- a necessity to deal with on a nine hour flight -- gluten free special menus can be inedible. This was especially evident in contrast to the abundantly delicious food we had in Italy. On the way over, we nearly starved. It seemed that gluten free was also free of many other things like adequate protein, seasonings and eye appeal. There was even a couscous on the plate and we were definitely suspect that we had simply gotten a vegetarian meal. On airplanes, you can't ask the chef.
We took our chances on the return flight (not recommended for most celiacs) and found plenty of good choices on the regular menu and brought along fruit and those yummy toasts. While most were accommodating, one flight attendant treated the special meal as a bit of a nuisance and us like we might be just more high maintenance passengers trying to work the system. Since there are many who must not eat gluten, whether they have celiac or some other intolerance, there seems to be a need for some consciousness raising about this issue among people who serve food to the public and among Americans in general. But rest assured that if you are traveling to Italy and have to avoid gluten, you will have plenty of choices. Buon appetito!
Kay Goldstein, MA is a writer, cook, and meditation teacher. You can read more of her stories and essays in the Huffington post archives http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kay-goldstein and at www.lessonsforthecook.com