Dreaming of traveling in the land of pizza and pasta, but not sure if you can navigate the famed wheat-loving country with a gluten allergy? Let me assuage your fears: you can! Go ahead, book that flight to Italy!
As a Backroads Trip Leader, I've been successfully living gluten-free in Italy for two years. I'm constantly discovering Italian dishes that are inherently gluten-free and finding gluten-free alternatives that are becoming more prevalent. Each region of Italy has its own specialties. As you travel from one area to the next, you can discover new dishes that are both delectable AND devoid of gluten.
Italy is a peninsula with 4,700 miles of coastline, so that means lots of fish and seafood can be found on menus. It also has diversified agriculture, meaning lots of high quality, pasture-raised meats and farm-fresh, often organic, veggies. And let's not forget that Italians are avid hunters as well, both for wild game, like rabbits, deer and boar, as well as for wild mushrooms like porcini, chanterelles and the prized black and white truffles.
Most restaurants in Italy take allergies seriously. You often find menus denoting common allergens such as gluten, dairy and nuts. Waiters and cooks are accustomed to catering to dietary requests. Most restaurants in Italy stock gluten-free pasta, so they can make the same dish, just substituting the noodles. Many pizzerias offer gluten-free pizza as well. Learn the common phrase "senza glutine" (without gluten) and tack it onto your dinner order!
A great pasta alternative that's found from the top to the tip of the boot is risotto. Made from Italian grains of rice, risotto is inherently gluten-free. Try ordering risotto alla pescatora (with seafood) on the Amalfi Coast or risotto Milanese with saffron in the north.
Another naturally gluten-free dish is polenta, which is a cornmeal dish that often serves as a bed for stewed or grilled meats and hearty vegetables like mushrooms. Ubiquitous in the north, it's the perfect fare after a brisk hike or spin through the mountainous northern Dolomite region.
Another favorite gluten-free find is farinata, a flatbread made of chickpea flour that's a specialty of Liguria. You can find it served by the slice in bakeries or made to order at pizzerias, where they often offer it with toppings such as pesto, stracchino cheese, sausage or even fresh artichokes. I first discovered farinata in Santa Margherita Ligure while leading our Walking Cinque Terre & Tuscany trip.
How about a sweet treat made of chestnut flour? Known as castagnaccio, it's typically found in the fall months when fresh chestnuts are ground into a flour and combined with pinenuts, raisins and often rosemary. Found throughout Tuscany, its flavors embody the harvest season; I always have my eyes peeled for this delicacy while leading biking trips through Tuscany in the fall.
Another wheat alternative in Italy is buckwheat, known as grano saraceno in Italian. While leading biking trips in the Dolomites, I discovered that one typical dessert is made with no wheat flour at all and just grano saraceno--layered with raspberry jam, it's eponymously called torta al grano saraceno. I've found places that make buckwheat crepes and waffles too, my favorite being Gelateria Gepi, another great find in Santa Margherita Ligure.
Speaking of gelaterie, let me fill you in on one of my favorite gluten-free secrets - the gelateria Grom. Grom is now an international chain, but it was started by two Italian brothers and grew out of the Italian Slow Food movement. Grom prides itself on making gelato with the highest quality ingredients like the famed Bronte pistachios from Sicily. Most importantly, everything in their shops is gluten-free. That's right: the gelato, the cones, the cookies... EVERYTHING! They have locations in various Italian cities, including Siena, a town I visit regularly when leading our biking trips in Tuscany. See you there!