At least twice this summer—first the New York Times in the United States at the end of June, then the Independent in the United Kingdom one week ago—major media outlets have shined a unilaterally positive spotlight on the experience of being a gluten-free diner in Italy. Such praise adds two more voices to the resounding chorus proclaiming Italia the Shangri-la of gluten-free eating. As the party line goes, you trot out a few stock phrases—senza glutine or per celiaci or non posso mangiare il glutine—and they roll out the gluten-free red carpet.
But is the grass really so much greener? Is fawning over Italy in this way justified? Just consider this choice passage from the Times article: “You’d think Italy would be hell for the gluten-intolerant. To our surprise, we found it to be closer to heaven.” Heaven? That’s a pretty high standard.
I’m here to offer a contrarian perspective. For all that Italy does right with celiac disease awareness and the gluten-free diet, there are at least five ways the English-speaking media get it wrong, making Italy sound even further ahead of places like the United States than it really is.
1. It’s about more than the major cities
Invariably, coverage of gluten-free dining in Italy focuses on the major cities. For example, the Times and Independent articles specifically reference Genoa, Turin, Venice, Florence, and Rome. It’s no surprise that cities like these have a multitude of gluten-free dining options. They’re major population centers, plus they’re heavily trafficked by tourists. Would you be surprised to find gluten-free dining options in New York City or Los Angeles or Denver? Of course not. Yet we trip over ourselves when a food or travel writer finds a gluten-free menu in Rome.
By comparison, Kelli and I spent two weeks in Italy last September, half of that time deliberately off the beaten tourist track. Our travels took us through everything from small villages in the Italian Alps and along the Mediterranean coast, to small cities, to everything in between. We visited 10 communities in all, and probably inquired with at least 30 restaurants, if not more. We found exactly one restaurant (one!) with gluten-free pizza, two with gluten-free pasta, and two that had prominent language advertising senza glutine or per celiaci. And there was overlap among them, so we’re only actually talking three restaurants in all.
2. A supermarket aisle is a supermarket aisle
In the United States, gluten-free grocery shopping goes a lot like this: fresh fruits and veggies from the produce section, more shopping around the supermarket periphery, and then a stop in an aisle (or part of an aisle) dedicated for specialty gluten-free foods and products.
You know what our Italian supermarket shopping experience was like? Exactly the same. We picked up plenty of fruits and veggies from produce, grabbed a cheap bottle or two of Italian table wine (now there’s a nice difference!), and then found our way to the gluten-free aisle where we could grab a few specialty products—a loaf of bread, some crackers, maybe a few cookies for snacks. Overall the experience wasn’t materially different.
3. Chain restaurants can offer a familiar, reliable option
Curiously, the Times and Independent articles both referenced the same chain of artisanal gelaterias, a place named Grom, which also has three locations in New York City. The Independent writer fawned that he and his family “put them on our to-do list in every city we went to.” That’s all well and good, but it hardly sets Italy apart. I could just as easily imagine an Italian writer opining on the gluten-free dining experience in America and noting the ubiquity of chain restaurants in every city that offer extensive gluten-free menus, such as P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and a very long and growing list of others.
4. Naturally gluten-free foods are naturally gluten-free anywhere you go
Against the backdrop of Italy’s wheat-based pastas, pizzas, breads, and more, writers are quick to point out a plethora of naturally gluten-free food options—from chickpea-based farinata to arborio-based risotto—just to make sure you take your blinders off and realize that Italy’s rich culinary heritage isn’t one big IV drip of gluten in a saline solution delivered straight to your bloodstream.
That’s a good reminder, but you’ll find naturally gluten-free food pretty much anywhere you travel, including staying domestic right here in the States. How many times have you been out to an American restaurant and your option was a plain grilled steak with steamed vegetables and a salad? Do you know what my very first dinner in Italy was? Plain grilled pork with simple vegetables and a side salad.
5. Bring-your-own gluten-free foods is still a necessity
If you think you can travel to Italy, leave your “safety” bag of emergency gluten-free foods at home, and simply pluck a few slices of gluten-free bread off the nearest fig tree or grape vines, think again. There are plenty of times when in Italy—despite the country’s progressive awareness with celiac disease and the gluten-free diet—you still need to bring your own stuff.
For example, for the last night of the Alps portion of our trip, we hiked up into the mountains to stay at a hut. European huts are relatively extravagant (at least compared to Colorado’s modest ones), with a rustic, inexpensive prix fixe dinner prepared by a cook and enjoyed by all the climbers and hikers staying the night. Not leaving things to chance, I loaded my pack with a bag of gluten-free pasta and a jar of sauce, and it was a good thing I did. Later, when we were touring the agricultural hillsides above Cinque Terre, we stopped in at an agricultural cooperative to taste their olive oils and local wines. They offered me spoons for the olive oil tasting, but I was also glad to have brought my own gluten-free bread for dipping to fully round out the tasting experience.
Don’t get me wrong. Is eating in Italy—gluten-free or not—a glorious experience? Absolutely. Is Italy a progressive country when it comes to celiac awareness and gluten-free eating? For sure. Do many restaurants do a marvelous job preparing delicious food free of gluten cross contamination? Yes.
But let’s not put on rose-colored glasses and elevate the country to mythological status for the gluten-free community. To hear some writers tell it, you’d think Italy is Moses leading the world’s gluten-free people out of exodus from a barren desert where the sands are wheat flour and there’s nary a gluten-free food to be had. It’s easy to think the grass is greener there, especially if you’re feeling less optimistic about things here.
By all means, travel to Italy and have a fabulous time. We certainly did. But take the same things writers often say about gluten-free dining in Italy—the five points I note in this post—and take a second look at your gluten-free life here. I bet your gluten-free world here at home can start to look a little brighter, too.
Is there a city near you with more gluten-free dining options you could consider for a special night out? Have you found the supermarket(s) that stock your favorite specialty gluten-free foods? What chain restaurants have great food, vigilant allergen protocols, and lots of locations to give you piece of mind when on the road? What naturally gluten-free dishes can take your attention off the eternal quest for a gluten-free pizza crust and a gluten-free hamburger bun at restaurants? And how can maintaining a BYO attitude keep up your safety net so you’re never left without something to eat?
Whether you call it gluten or glutine, the world of gluten-free dining is what you make of it. From the day we started this blog, we’ve said: no gluten, no problem. That remains as true as ever … whether you’re in Italy, America, or wherever your gluten-free travels take you.