Gluten Free Italy? If I only had a dollar for all the times people have looked at me funny since I have gotten back from Italy and said that it was the most gluten-free friendly country in the world. “Are u sure it was Italy, the land of pasta and pizza?” Yes people I am 100 percent sure! I knew when I got back from Italy that I would need to make this blog very special, and that is why it has taken me so long to write this. Sometimes we have experiences in life that are so incredibly meaningful, that it is hard to put it into words. The experience that I had in Italy changed my life forever. I can’t explain it, other than to say this – I felt heard. I felt I existed there. All I had to say was, “Io sono celiaco.” That’s it. No apologies, no endless stories of how sick I get if I ingest 1/4 teaspoon of gluten. Sometimes, I feel like I never stop talking about what it means to live gluten-free, because I am always having to explain myself.
Asking for food without gluten was as effortless as saying I preferred water without ice. Not only that, but no one made me feel different or set apart. The menus in Italy are clearly marked “senza glutine” (meaning without gluten). Here in the US when I even mention gluten-free most waiters and restaurant owners have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. It’s actually rather alarming. I know a lot of celiacs that never eat out because they are too scared of getting sick or too embarrassed to have to explain what “gluten-free” means. It was unbelievable to me how much easier it was to eat well in Italy than it is here. Even something as simple as getting a sandwich is easier! Gluten-Free bread is sold every where in Italy.
Italians are very educated about celiac, and the children there are routinely tested for the disease before kindergarten. The many who test positive receive great services such as a monthly stipend from the government for gluten-free food plus extra vacation time to shop for and prepare gluten-free food! It is a law that gluten-free food must be made available in schools, hospitals, and public places and that all medications and food labels must indicate the presence of gluten. In Italy, you can even study for a Master’s degree in “Celiac Disease”. In the culture that loves and lives in food, eating gluten-free is extremely easy. In 16 amazing days of eating through Italy , I never once got sick. We ate out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day, and I never suffered from cross-contamination. There were a few times when the food was so delicious that I just expected to get sick.
Before we left for Italy, my husband made me stock up on Kawaii Bars (our favorite gluten-free protein bar) because he honestly did not believe I would be able to find any food there to eat. All the research I did said that Italy was incredibly gluten-free friendly, but a part of me just couldn’t believe it. I know how hard it is to eat safely here in America, the thought of getting sick in another country scared the you know what out of me. I truly prepared myself for 16 days of eating Kawaii bars in Italy (depressing, right?). I did not eat any Kawaii bars while I was there, but instead I swapped it for gluten-free gelato which is everywhere. I admit not as healthy as the Kawaii bar, but when in Rome do as the Romans, right?
Something that definitely surprised me were all the gluten-free bakeries! We don’t have any gluten-free bakeries where I live so you can imagine my excitement! Knowing I could walk in a bakery and order whatever I wanted, not just choose from the small selection of gluten-free items being offered overwhelmed me. Anything and everything in the bakery was mine to eat!!! Poor Jim had to work many hours of over-time to pay for all of the deserts I ate at the many bakeries we went to. One of the most memorable experiences I had while in Italy was when I ate my first croissant. I know that to the average person, a croissant is not a big deal, but since being diagnosed with celiac I have had to watch many of my friends devour croissants while I just sit next them in horror. I have dreamt of a warm, flaky croissant many times but have never found anyone that made them. When I saw them sitting on the counter of one of the bakeries, my heart skipped a few beats. I quickly ordered one and immediately shoved it into my mouth. I had goosebumps the minute I swallowed my first bite. It was everything I had dreamed about! It was warm, flaky and so so delicious.
There are many stores in Italy that are entirely gluten-free. It is different from the bakeries in that it is all packaged foods. Italians with celiac disease can spend their monthly stipend given to them by the government in these stores. One of my favorites was a place called Mea Libera Tutti in Venice. This store is truly a luxury for any gluten free tourist. The owner, Azzurra Viola and her two sons have celiac disease which is what motivated her to open up her store. She hand picks only the best products, and is very particular about what she sells. I really fell in love with her store, and literally had to be dragged out of their by my husband. One of my favorite products that I had at her store was a cookie that was made by nuns in a convent. This particular group of nuns make a whole line of gluten-free products that they sell to gluten-free stores. All of the money made on their products goes to educating less fortunate children.
My favorite restaurant we went to while in Italy was Ciro & Sons in Florence. I had read many amazing reviews, but nothing prepared me for my experience there. They make their pizza, pasta and bread from scratch daily. I actually cried when I ate the pizza! I have had countless gluten-free pizzas, some good, some bad, but this was better than any pizza I had before going gluten-free! The Ciro boys really worked hard to perfect the gluten-free pizza. Not only is the food outstanding, but the people who own the restaurant really make you feel like a part of their family. Throughout the restaurant there are beautiful family photos that almost make you feel like you were apart of these events in their life. After the 3rd night in a row of eating their, we felt like we were saying goodbye to family.
It felt to me as though Italian restaurant owners do not like to ever turn a customer down just because of an allergy. Wow, what a concept! If you are reading this blog and you are not gluten-free, I urge you to educate yourself on what celiac is. Everyone knows what a nut allergy is, and a gluten allergy is just as important. I didn’t just eat well in Italy, I also learned a lot. I will forever be grateful to Italy and the Italian people for giving me 2 of the best weeks of my life. 2 weeks where I could eat like I hadn’t eaten in years.