Senza Glutine: Gluten-Free in Italy

Exterior of Mama Eat (gluten-free restaurant in Rome)

When I first landed on Italy as the destination for my 50th birthday trip, I had not yet determined that gluten is my dietary nemesis. I’m not sure it would have been my first choice if I was envisioning a gluten-free vacation. The pasta! The pizza! Can you enjoy a trip to Italy without eating a little gluten (or a lot of gluten)? In short, YES.

Italy is a very Celiac-aware country, and takes gluten intolerance seriously. In Rome, nearly every restaurant we visited had gluten-free pasta available on request, and most also indicated GF dishes on their menus. You can find restaurants with the official red sticker designating their compliance with national standards of the Italian Celiac Association for a gluten-free diet. There are also restaurants that have gone all in on gluten-free Italian fare.

The downside of ordering gluten-free pasta is that you don’t get the fresh, handmade pasta. Still, the rice-flour noodles are not bad. Typically cooked al dente, they provide a satisfying base for all of the classic, Roman pasta dishes. There’s a theory that pasta originated in Italy as rice noodles (possibly brought back by Marco Polo from his adventures in the Far East), so in a sense gluten-free is truly old school pasta.

At a grocery store near our Airbnb in Rome, they had an entire wall dedicated to “senza glutine” pasta, snacks, bread, and desserts, plus a small freezer section with frozen meals. We picked up some gluten-free chocolate muffins for breakfast, along with gluten-free pretzels and chips for snacking.

Mama Eat

Gluten-free pizza at Mama Eat

We stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome, and at the top of my list for gluten-free dining in Rome was the neighborhood branch of the gluten-free Italian chain, Mama Eat. Located in old Trastevere, you will find Mama Eat tucked into a narrow, cobbled street, among a few other trattorias with plentiful outdoor seating. The street is a popular pedestrian thoroughfare, great for people (and dog) watching.

Everything on Mama Eat’s menu is gluten-free, including a huge selection of pizzas and pastas, and Roman favorites like arancini (crispy, fried rice and cheese balls). I hadn’t yet had any pizza in Italy, so I opted for the Napul’e pizza, with sausage, broccoli rabe, and cheese of Campania on an olive oil base.

I’ve eaten quite a few gluten-free pizzas since I cut out gluten, with mixed results. Mama Eat has perfected a technique for Napoli-style crust (thicker than Roman) using a 72 hour proving process. This leads to a pillowy, chewy texture you’d normally get from gluten. It may be the best pizza crust I’ve ever tasted, gluten notwithstanding. With a varied menu and fresh ingredients, I can highly recommend Mama Eat for casual Italian fare, whether you eat gluten or not.

Fish and lemons on the Amalfi Coast

Tuna carpaccio caprese salad at Accento

One simple way to avoid gluten and still enjoy some traditional Italian cuisine is to order risotto. On the Amalfi Coast, seafood is fresh and ubiquitous, and many restaurants offer a generous seafood risotto to feed two. Every menu has an octopus salad, and many offer tuna steaks and salads full of local cheeses and olives.

It was less common to see a special gluten-free designation on the menu on the Amalfi Coast, but I did see gluten-free pasta options on a couple of menus. There was even a rather pointless “gluten free” sign outside a gelateria we passed by in Amalfi.

Even without a specified gluten-free section of the menu, every restaurant has the “secondi” section right between “primi” (pasta) and “dolce” (dessert). These are typically meat or fish dishes. At Giardanello in Minori, I had a lovely warm seafood salad and the Branzino entree. I left the bread basket to my husband. Midnight Sun cafe on the main square had a selection of gluten-free pasta dishes, but I opted for the octopus and potato salad.

We stayed in the small town of Minori on the Amalfi Coast, which has a small selection of restaurants. Still, I never found it challenging to find a delicious gluten-free option. The seafood is amazing, and limoncello has always been gluten-free.

Sorrento and Naples

Octopus salad in Naples

I was delighted to see online that Sorrento has a good selection of restaurants vetted and reviewed by gluten-intolerant diners, and there is also an abundance of seafood restaurants to choose from.

We arrived by boat from Amalfi and discovered that the best way to get from the port at the bottom of the cliff to the town at the top is by paying 1.10 Euros per person to take an elevator. On the walk through the busy town center, we passed a ton of restaurants and bars, full of people drinking spritzes in shade. I noticed a nice-looking sushi restaurant, which could be a good choice if you want fresh seafood and a break from Italian fare.

On our first night in Sorrento we decided to keep it casual and eat at Fauno on the main square. It was packed, but they found us a table outside without much of a wait. I had seen on their sign that they offered a gluten-free menu, which included gnocchi alla Sorrentina—squishy potato pillows covered in red sauce and served with fresh basil atop a pool of mozzarella. The best part of the meal was a gluten-free bread roll, served hot on an individual plate with good butter.

Our second night in Sorrento, I made reservations at a seafood restaurant on the main shopping street called Accento. We started with a tuna carpaccio caprese salad, and I kept the raw tuna theme going with tuna tataki. For dessert, we shared a pannacotta covered with rich caramel. Gluten-free doesn’t always mean healthy!

The Campania Express got us to Naples in the mid-afternoon, and once we found our Airbnb at the top of five flights of stairs, we went out to the nearby Conad market for wine and snacks. This was a small, urban grocery chain and did not have a dedicated “senza gluten” area like the grocery store we visited in Rome, but I found some tiny, gluten-free pies, cookies, and rice snacks.

I did a quick search online and found a pizzeria offering gluten-free crust just a short walk from our apartment. Vesi is an old-school pizzeria in the historic center of Naples, with plenty of outdoor seating and good people-watching. Unfortunately, the pizza just wasn’t that great. The gluten-free crust was OK, but nothing near the quality of the Mama Eat crust. The tomato sauce was bland, the “prosciutto” was just sliced ham, and the mushrooms came from a can. The crust on my husband’s gluten-y pizza looked nicer, but the toppings were also sub-par.

Dinner decision-fatigue was setting in by this point in the vacation. After failing to get into a Michelin-starred bistro without a reservation on our second night in Naples, we landed at a classic cafe in the historic center, which had at least two risotto options on the menu. I chose the risotto con salmone e limone, with a refreshing limoncello spritz. It was all very lemony and satisfying, even without any Michelin stars.

When researching dining options for Naples, I was excited to discover Zero Zero Grano, Naples’ first dedicated gluten-free restaurant. I made a reservation for our last night in Naples, but sadly it got cancelled due to a national holiday (Italian Republic Day). We showed up at the appointed hour, but the place was dark and the doors were locked.

Luckily, we found a trattoria in a nearby square, where I got the best octopus salad of the trip—grilled and served atop mashed purple potatoes, with arugula and cherry tomatoes. They also offered a mezzo litro of decent white wine for five euros, and some live entertainment from energetic buskers.

Overall, eating gluten-free in Italy was not as difficult as I might have predicted. If you do eat gluten, go ahead and have some of that fresh pasta while you are in Italy, but also consider the other parts of the menu. Italian food is not one-dimensional, and it does not have to contain gluten to be delicious.

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