Today is a special guest post by Catalin Varela, an expat with celiac disease currently living in Italy. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been to Italy but I have fond memories of all the wonderful, gluten-free food I ate while traveling there. Many people are surprised that you can eat gluten-free so easily in Italy, but it’s true! Catalin’s tips below are a great starting place for anyone interested in traveling to and eating gluten-free in Italy.
Tips for Traveling as a Celiac in Italy
by Catalin Varela
Shortly after turning 20, I packed my life into a suitcase and moved to Italy. I make it sound impulsive, but I’d been working on moving here for some time. Prior, I spent six months traveling through Europe while writing my thesis about how cultures approach gluten free eating differently and the effect that has on the quality of life for celiac patients. When I got to Italy I discovered what a celiac paradise this country truly is. I have never been anywhere that understood my diagnosis so well and took my gluten free diet so seriously. A breath of fresh air, to say the least. And…reason enough for me to move.
Though it’s important to heal your body after a celiac diagnosis, few people are talking about the importance of healing your relationship with food. Food is deeply rooted in how we interact with one another and how we participate in culture. It’s no wonder a celiac diagnosis feels so isolating. For me, moving to Italy and finally feeling like I can have “normal” experiences was an act of healing my relationship with food.
Now, over a year later, I’ve made it my mission to make other celiacs feel as comfortable as possible traveling in Italy. It baffles me when celiacs still think Italy is an impossible place to travel to, with all that pasta and pizza. Of course not! I think every celiac should come to enjoy Italy at least once in their life. And when you do, these are my top suggestions for a seamless trip.
Become an AIC member & download the app
The Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC) will be your best friend. They are a foundation established in 1979 to support and advocate for the celiac community while spreading awareness of celiac disease itself. You will find their well-known, red certification sticker on the front window of restaurants that maintain strict protocols for celiac-safe food preparation and on celiac-safe packaged foods. They also have a mobile app with a map of all the certified restaurants across the country, a barcode scanner, and a detailed list of which foods are safe. It costs about 35€ a year to be a member and it is well worth it. Check them out here.
Look for the certified gluten free symbol
Restaurants that are certified gluten free will have this sticker in the window:
And packaged foods that are certified gluten free have this symbol:
Learn a few Italian words
Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak fluent Italian to enjoy your trip. Truth be told, most people in major cities speak English anyway. But just to be on the safe side and boost your confidence, it’s a good idea to have a few basic Italian words uner your belt. I’d hate for you to find yourself at a restaurant with a waiter who doesn’t speak English and not be able to communicate your needs! At the very least know that “gluten free” is “senza glutine”! I recently wrote a post all about celiac/gluten free Italian vocabulary.
Communicate with wait staff!
Even when eating at a certified gluten free restaurant, make sure the waiter knows you’re a celiac: “sono celiaco/a.” This way they know to bring you a gluten free menu, be careful with your order, and there’s no room for confusion.
Pick up snacks from the pharmacy
It is very unlikely that you’ll find yourself without any gluten free options but to put your mind at ease, you may want to keep a few snacks on you. Most pharmacies in Italy carry a few basic gluten free snacks for this exact reason. When you arrive, stop at the nearest pharmacy to pick up the essentials. If the pharmacist asks what you need help with, you can tell them you are “celiaco/a.” If you do ever find yourself out and about without anything to eat, remember…pharmacies are your first stop!
Do your research
Before your trip, research your destination to familiarize yourself with the area. This is where the AIC app comes in handy! Check out what safe restaurants are close by, locate the closest grocery store, and work out whether you’ll have access to a kitchen or will only be eating out. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can request an extra mini fridge (make sure to mention it’s for medical supplies) to keep a few simple things in your room. The main grocery stores in Italy to look out for are Conad, Carrefour, Coop, Pam, and Esselunga.
As a general rule of thumb, bigger cities will have more options than smaller towns. The top cities I recommend (in terms of access to good gluten free food) are Florence, Rome, and Milan. I’ve started a new series on my blog of 100% gluten free guides to major cities in Italy. Keep an eye out here as I continue to share the best gluten free spots across the country.
When in doubt, ask an expert
If you’re still not sure about some details or want more personalized help, that’s what I’m here for:) For any other questions about gluten free travel in Italy, please don’t hesitate to reach out! I am always available via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Italy is a beautiful country with lots of new experiences to be had! And, clearly, some amazing food to be tried. Divertiti (have fun)!
Catalin Varela is a 20-something American living in Florence. She was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2016 and has since become a Certified IIN Health Coach with a degree in Health Arts & Sciences. As the founder of The Celiac in Italy, Catalin teaches online Italian cooking classes (all gluten free, of course), consults clients on traveling safely in Italy as a celiac, and is an English+Italian speaking resource for all things gluten free Italy. Learn more and follow her adventures on Instagram.