I did all the right things. I made translation allergy cards explaining celiac disease and my food allergies in Italian. I read Italian cookbooks so that I’d recognize what ingredients, such as butter and capers and flour, might be used in common recipes. I called the airlines and ordered gluten-free meals. I packed my favorite Larabars for emergencies. I made sure my hotel rooms had refrigerators for storing allergy-free snacks.
Even with all the prep and planning, I still got sick.
During my twelve days of travelling through Italy, it became apparent that Italians understand celiac disease quite well. In fact, wait staff eagerly offered me wheat-free pasta; unfortunately, the pasta was made from corn, which I’m allergic to. Few seemed to understand food allergies. One memorable night I ordered risotto with shrimp that the waiter assured me was dairy-free; apparently he didn’t think “cream” fell into the category of dairy. Let’s just say the evening didn’t end well and the next day wasn’t much better.
I quickly learned to not be adventurous and stick to what I know so well–salad. Fortunately, a regular item on most menus was a salad with tuna in olive oil, olives. tomatoes, and mesclun greens (“mixed” wild-harvested, young greens). Some days I’d also go to the meat market and pick up sliced prosciutto and salami to nibble on. For dinner, a piece of fish or meat seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and a vegetable (artichokes were in season) or salad worked well. Of course, a nice chianti enhanced most meals, followed by a lemoncello for dessert (Positano had the best lemoncello!).
Timing was everything. One long afternoon my family and I went in search of a pizzeria one of our tour guides said had the best pizza in Rome. By the time we found it, we had to wait twenty minutes to be let inside only to be told the kitchen was closed (no salads, just pizza). I insisted my husband and son stay and try the pizza, so by the time we left the restaurant it was nearly two–the time of day when most businesses in Italy are closed! I didn’t eat lunch that day until 4 p.m.
Airline travel was also a test in patience. My advice to anyone with food challenges who is travelling via airline: Pack several meals and snacks because you never know when you’ll arrive at your destination. And don’t expect the airline to actually have your preordered special meal.
I did enjoy a few wonderful meals, too. On the Amalfi Coast, we ate at a fabulous family-run restaurant called La Tagliata. At first I was worried because they serve fixed meals, but I didn’t need to be. With the exception of the pasta, cheese and dessert, I could eat everything. The dishes were simple and came right out of their own orchards and from their own livestock. It proved to me that the “basics” can be delicious and elegant, and having allergies doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy good-tasting food. Ciao!