It was so easy.
All I had to say was, “Io sono celiaco.” That’s it. No apologies, no shrugging of shoulders, no endless stories of how my intestines work if I ingest 1/4 teaspoon of gluten. In the States, I often feel like an other when I go to restaurants, or, at best — an advocate for the rest of us. Sometimes, I feel like I never stop talking about what it means to live gluten-free, because I am always having to explain myself.
But in Italy, after I said “Io sono celiaco,” or sometimes simply the phrase “senza glutine,” I could move onto other conversations. Better yet, I could tuck my fork into my food and not have to worry if I could take another bite.
I didn’t feel different there. I didn’t have to feel like I was making trouble. Asking for food without gluten was as effortless as saying I preferred water without ice. Or beef instead of pork. I was simply a diner, being taken care of, and well.
You see, in every place we ate in Italy, the waiters and chefs understood. From what I have been told (both here and in Italy), the Italian people have been educated about celiac. Children are now routinely tested for the disease before kindergarten, a test as ritualized as a standard set of vaccinations. If you work in food in Italy, you know how to feed people well, no matter what their allergies and concerns. And here is my favorite fact: adults with diagnosed celiac in Italy are given two days a month off, with pay, to go search out their food.
I’m telling you, we were tempted just to stay there.
Because celiac is a recognized medical condition, most drug stores in Italy (called “farmacias”) have an entire shelf of gluten-free foods. Not all of them did, when we walked in. The smaller the town, the more farmacias you might have to visit before you find gluten-free bread. But we never visited a town that didn’t have at least a little: a box of gluten-free biscotti for nibbling; a gluten-free baguette for dunking in garlicky sauce; a package of gluten-free bread crumbs for creating dishes at home.
In Assisi, the first day we were there, I walked into the farmacia to investigate, since I had read about this before. Three steps in from the door, I stopped. That shelf contained more gluten-free products than I had seen at Whole Foods the week before. Tears welled up in my eyes. I can’t explain it, other than to say this — I felt heard. I felt I existed there. I didn’t feel so weird.
The bread, made by Dr. Schaer, lasted for two days. I tore one part of the small baguette into strips, and ate it with my cheese plate, for the antipasti I ate at the beginning of lunch that day. The next morning, the Chef and I ate breakfast in bed, with slices of bread and prosciutto. I’m telling you, it’s not a bad way to go.
Every one of the packaged gluten-free foods I ate in Italy was infinitely better than the ones I have eaten here. The pasta by Bi-Aglut was great, better than my old standby, Tinkyada. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. I studied every label, and most of my favorite bread rolls and baked goods contained corn flour, which I rarely use. Expect a lot of experimenting around here.
However, every one of my favorite line of products was made by a company called Giusto. Chocolate croissants, people. To my sadness, I cannot find a single distributor of their products in North America. If anyone knows of a source, let me know!
Breakfast is the only difficulty for those of us trying to eat gluten-free in Italy.
Most Italians have small breakfasts, nibbling on croissants, or toast with jam. When we walked into the breakfast room of our bed and breakfast in Rome (the photograph above), we were charmed by the homey table setting. But I was alarmed to see so much gluten on the table. Little cookies everywhere. Luckily, I had my supplies, and Eduardo provided me with prosciutto. I did just fine.
Still, if you are going to Italy, and you must gluten-free, it will be infinitely easier to start off your day with food if you stay in an apartment or a bed and breakfast where they can accommodate you.
And who is going to complain about the mornings when there is coffee like this?
We live in Seattle. I thought we drank good coffee.
We do now, because we brought cans of Illy coffee home with us.
Drink all the coffee you can while you are there. It will never taste the same, away from Rome.
Slow down and enjoy your lunch.
In Gubbio — a tiny town nestled against a mountain in Umbria — we ate a three-hour lunch in a quietly spectacular restaurant called Fornace di Mastro Giorgio. The food and decor were hushed fine dining, but the atmosphere made us feel like we were in a family home. Our friends Jen and Federico recommended it to us, and we are glad we listened. A few days later, we moaned about how much we enjoyed our meal. Jen exclaimed, “Oh, you should have told us in advance you were going. They are friends of ours. They would have taken care of you.” But there was no need. As strangers off the street, we were treated like kings and queens.
When the waiter brought the table an amuse bouche of roasted barley and vegetables, I demurred. A moment later, a small martini glass appeared before me, filled with fresh buffalo mozzarella, bright-red bites of tomato, and a flourish of green olive oil. I have never tasted anything so good in my life.
For my main course, the waiter flourished a Tuscan beefsteak before me, on an enormous platter. The chefs had already cut up the steak into slivers before it arrived in front of me. At first, I wondered if they thought me a child. But then, the salt tray appeared. The waiter gave me six different salts — Himalayan pink salt; Hawaiian volcanic black salt; Normandy sea salt, etc. — and suggested I try each strip of steak with a different salt. I love salt, but I have rarely tasted the difference between each one so exquisitely on my tongue.
What could follow such a course? A dessert served on a piece of black slate. As I sat in this room, built in the 1300s, I looked down at my plate to see a white meringue, a small cup of vanilla gelato (with meringue pieces mixed in), and a smaller cup of hot chocolate sauce so smooth that I could see the reflection of my face in it when I leaned in for a look. All of it rested on a jagged piece of black slate. After I licked the back of my spoon for the last taste, I said to the waiter, “That slate as presentation? Fantastic.“
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It came from the roof.”
Who could miss gluten in the midst of this?
In Norcia — a town so well known for its exemplary pork products that the best butchers in Italy are called Norcineras — the entire town smells of truffles. As we walked down the main street, a young woman came out of a hotel restaurant and gestured us in. We all of us (the Chef and I, as well as Hubert and Pat) skirted away, thinking it was a tourist trap. The other restaurant that had been recommended by another Italian friend was closed for lunches on Wednesday, though. We doubled back to the first place, still a little wary, but drawn into the smell. I asked a waitress about my chances of eating safely. In broken English and voluminous hand gestures, she told me that two celiac chefs worked there. That made our decision. When the waiter set down a sizzling platter of black-truffle risotto before me, I couldn’t speak for a moment.
Later, we went on a search for chocolate with truffles. (I can’t seem to get enough of truffles, now.) One little shop, tucked into the corner of town, looked unassuming at first. But inside were walls of chocolates, and that haunting smell that causes me to wolf down scents with my nose as though I had never smelled before. The two older ladies offered us a small plate of broken pieces of chocolate. I almost reached, but I asked, first. When I explained that I have celiac, the older woman raised her eyebrows in recognition. She thumped her chest with her hand, and said, “I. Celiac.” She shooed me away from the profferred plate — that one had farro in it — came around the counter, took my hand, and led me to the wall of chocolates. With a jabbing finger, she pointed out every single chocolate in the store that I could eat.
Every day, when I eat a tiny bite of dark chocolate with black truffles here at home, I think of the kindness of that woman, and how much alike we are, halfway across the world.
In Rome, on the last day of the honeymoon, the Chef and I ate our last cup of gelato. We had eaten gelato every day. To skip that creamy treat would have been a sin. (Thank goodness we walked at least five miles a day.) Eating was easy, because every gelateria offered cups along with cones. Just as I was savoring my last bite, I looked up at the counter-top. Startled, I stood up and ran toward it — a box labeled “Il Cono per Tutti.” A cone for everyone. A gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free ice cream cone. Even though I had just finished a cup of gelato, I ordered a cone.
How could I resist?
In the culture that loves and lives in food, eating gluten-free is graciously easy. Besides pizza and pasta, food in Italy also means grilled sardines, chickpea crepes, chewy salumi, and forest chicken roasted in myrtle and wild thyme. Since a significant percentage of Italian people suffer from celiac, the food producers intend to create the best gluten-free food in the world.
In ten delicious days of eating through Italy with my darling husband, I never once grew sick. We ate in restaurants for lunch and dinner, every day, and I never suffered from cross-contamination. I have never eaten so well in my life.
Of course, coming home wasn’t that easy.
On our 10 1/2-hour plane-ride home (after horrendous lines at the Rome airport, and a missed flight), we found that the gluten-free meal I ordered for the plane ride had gone missing, erroneously given to another customer. The same thing had happened on the way over (Delta Airlines, what is wrong with you?), but I had been able to prepare and pack food for the trip that time. It’s always harder on the way back.
When the Chef realized I would have to go nearly 11 hours without eating, he actually started crying. “Oh sweetie,” I said, putting my hand on the back of his neck. “I’ll be okay.“
“I know you will,” he said. “But I just want my wife to be able to eat. It isn’t too much to ask.”
Oh, how I love him.
After eleven hours without any food, we wandered the giant Atlanta airport where we had a four-hour layover before flying home. The Chef and I walked for forty-five minutes, desperate to find a place that looked safe enough for me. I actually cried this time. The contrast after being in Italy was just so stark. Weak from hunger, I finally settled on a bar where I could order a hamburger without a bun and a salad without dressing.
I grew sick. I was sick for the first three days we were home.
It shouldn’t be this hard.