Six years ago, I was diagnosed with coeliac disease, the condition where the body’s immune system starts to attack itself when gluten is digested, which in turn means the gut’s lining becomes increasingly damaged.
Symptoms for sufferers can range from mild to severe: nausea, diarrhoea and fatigue to peripheral neuropathy, malabsorption, osteoporosis and infertility.
Plenty of us have coeliac disease, of course (around 1 in 100 British people have been diagnosed in the UK, with half a million undiagnosed cases likely).
We’re the fussy eaters, the people that anxiously peruse the kitchens of perfectly reputable pub restaurants for wheat contaminates, the annoying friends who are just so picky at dinner parties.
But beyond irritating our mates, we coeliacs experience real difficulties when eating out, let alone travelling abroad. Italian holidays in particular – where restaurants burst with glorious pasta and pizza dishes, focaccia glistening on the side – raise a red flag.
So when, earlier this summer, I was packing my bags for a holiday to Rome with friends, I was filled with a certain amount of trepidation. I couldn’t wait to explore the city, but what was I going to eat? In my dreams, I had visions of Stanley Tucci serving me cacio e pepe and fluffy, charred pizza. In reality, I was ready for a week of lettuce and grilled vegetables.
I prepared for the worst. I made a map of possible restaurants, trying to trust the words of unknown “gluten-free travel bloggers”, while also choosing places that seemed vaguely appetising for my gluten-fancying friends.
I printed Italian gluten-free travel cards: small cards (available on the aforementioned blogs) in your chosen language designed to explain dietary requirements when travelling. And if all else failed, my suitcase was packed with a cupboard full of emergency snacks.
But it wasn’t long after my arrival in the city that I realised how little I’d needed to worry. Since 1979, a group called the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC) has been funding research, training and initiatives to improve the lives of coeliacs in Italy, and since 2008 it has been implementing the Alimentazione Fuori Casa (“Food Away From Home”) programme across the country.
Within the programme, staff and venues undertake rigorous training and learn the procedures for gluten-free cooking and service.
From restaurants and trattorias to cafes and food trucks, there are now more than 4,200 AIC-accredited locations in Italy that are safe for coeliacs, with a full list of venues available on the AIC website.
I was immediately impressed by the number of bright-red AIC-accredited logos fixed to the doors of restaurants. Even the pizzerias had “senza glutine” on the menu. When my friends and I went grocery shopping, we discovered dedicated gluten-free ranges in most supermarkets and pharmacies.
Across Rome, there were several stores that specialised solely in gluten-free food. It wasn’t long before my bags were brimming with gluten-free biscotti, fresh pasta and frozen gelato. No matter where we were, there were coeliac-friendly options waiting to be purchased.
It was the same when it came to dining out.
“Foreign tourists in Rome are always very excited to find such a wide range of gluten-free restaurants” said Angela Mocci from the AIC. “The great satisfaction in front of a nice plate of gluten-free spaghetti alla carbonara, or a gluten-free margherita pizza, is further confirmation our project is precious.”
Nowhere was this more in evidence than at Ginger, which delivers a modern, mediterranean take on traditional Italian cuisine. After ordering our lunch, our table quickly became filled with Ginger’s organic baked breads – warm, gluten-free and unbelievably bouncy – and crisp salads the size of our heads.
When speaking to Laura Pinelli, one of their managers, she explained that all the produce came from local farmers and producers with the best organic rices and gluten-free cereal. Even the wine and oils on our table were from their own farm in Campania.
“Ginger’s concept was born to share the idea that taste and health can come together,” she told me. “Our menus have many options for dietary restrictions and our chefs study all the food pairings to create a perfect experience.”
Ginger’s conscientious approach and consistent level of care, respect and understanding was one I found replicated across Rome.
At La Soffitta Renovatio, located near the Vatican, the staff immediately greeted us and identified if anyone was coeliac. I was then handed a gluten-free replica of the menu while the waiter walked us through the cooking processes and dedicated gluten-free kitchen space.
We didn’t have to wait long before steaming, hand-tossed pizzas arrived. I hadn’t tasted pizza like that in years and the only difference in the air-pocketed crusts was a small “senza glutine” flag perched on top of my own.
Rome, it seems, has transformed itself into a gluten-free delight and it won’t be long before I return.
Roman holiday: a coeliac’s guide
The restaurant, on Via di San Cosimato, offers traditional roman dishes from €7 per person. Mama Eat has separate kitchens, pizza ovens and chefs to cater for dietary requirements. The entire menu can be replicated into a gluten-free version, alternatives include sourdough pizza and a range of pasta dishes and desserts. There are three restaurants across Rome and locations in Florence, Milan and Naples (00 39 0 65 80 62 22; mamaeat.com).
Located in a 1645 baroque building at Via Borgognona, Ginger offers a chic, calm escape from the claustrophobic tourist laden streets. The expansive menu caters for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers healthy, modern mediterranean dishes from €9 per person. Gluten, dairy or nut free, vegan or vegetarian diets are all catered for. There are three restaurants in Rome and an upcoming opening in New York (00 39 0 66 99 40 836, gingersaporiesalute.com).
La Soffitta Renovatio
Part of a family-run business founded in 1908 and home of an award-winning Neapolitan pizza. From pizza-bread sandwiches to octopus burgers and comforting spaghetti carbonara, the menu will cater to your gluten-free needs. Find it at Piazza del Risorgimento 46/a 0013 (00 39 0 66 88 92 977, lasoffittarenovatio.com/en).
Fiocco Di Neve
Sits across from the Pantheon at Via del Pantheon and offers authentic Italian gelato made from €3.50 per person. All cones and gelato are made on sight and are fully gluten free. The menu boasts a range of flavours from chocolate, pistachio and mint to exotic combinations made with Italian fresh fruit (00 39 0 69 60 06 762, facebook.com/FioccodiNeveRoma).
Risotteria Melotti Roma
First opened in 2002 in Verona, there are now branches of restaurants in Florence, Rome and New York. This outpost, at Via della Vetrina, 12A/B 00186, offers traditional risotto and rice-based delights that are gluten free, starting from €13 per person. Alternatives on the menu include arancini, bread dishes made with rice flour, and an array of risotto dishes (00 39 0 66 86 80 93, risotteriamelottiroma.it/en).