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Traveling Italy as Vegetarian, Celiac, or with Food Allergies

Traveling inevitably means eating out either often or exclusively, which can be a minefield for those who follow special diets or have food allergies. Italy is the land of good food, and can be surprisingly easy to navigate for some types of diets and surprisingly difficult for others. Here is a quick guide for eating in Italy for vegetarians, those who suffer from celiac disease, and those with food allergies.

Dining al fresco(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Vegetarians


Much regional Italian cuisine is founded on lots of carbohydrates and vegetables, so one would think that it would be relatively easy to follow a strict vegetarian diet here. Unfortunately, Italians tend to use a lot of “insidious” meat in their cooking - beef broth for risotto, for example, or tiny dices of pancetta or sardines in their basic sauteé base - and often define “meat” as what you would buy at the butcher counter, placing charcuterie, fish, and anything cut into pieces smaller than a pea firmly outside the meat category.

Wall of Prosciutto(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

An amusing, though not entirely untrue, anecdote that often accompanies vegetarian visitors home from Italy goes something like this:

Diner: Sono vegetariano/a. (I'm vegetarian)
Waiter: Non, c'e' problema! No problem. We have all sorts of vegetarian dishes.
Would you like to start with an antipasto platter?
Diner: No, I don't eat cured meat. That's still meat.
Waiter: Okay, no problem. How about pasta? We have tagliatelle with peas and cream. The sauce is flavored with pancetta, but you don't even see it.
Diner: No, I don't eat pancetta.
Waiter: Ah, I know! Some frutti di mare (seafood), yes?

And so on.

Luckily, though this may still occur in some parts of Italy, things are changing. A study in 2011 estimated that nearly 12% of the Italian population now identifies as vegetarian. Restaurants are increasingly accommodating to vegetarian diners and it is becoming more common to see vegetarian options identified on menus.

Thankfully for those looking to eat authentic regional food – and not just pizza or insalata caprese for every meal – much of Italy was more or less unintentionally vegetarian during the leaner centuries until the post-war economic boom, so traditional dishes in many regions are often those more likely to be meat-free.

Pompeii 044(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Vegetarian Dishes to Order in Italy


Like all Italian cuisine, what is available on the menu in any given restaurant depends both on what is eaten locally and what is available at the time of year you are visiting. Always check out the contorni (side dishes) part of the menu. This is usually where the vegetables are hiding and a great place to find delicious seasonal options, such as grilled vegetables or sautéed mushrooms. Just watch out for roasted potatoes (often cooked in lard) and insalata, which is both the word for "greens" and "salad." Ordering insalata will sometimes just get you a pile of plain lettuce.

cacio-pepe-roma-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Some regions where the cuisine revolves heavily around meat (Emilia, Umbria) or seafood (Veneto, Puglia, Calabria) can be more difficult to navigate, but there are some safe bets available pretty much wherever you are and whenever you visit:

  • Pasta al Pomodoro (across Italy)
  • Pizza (margherita or verdure) or Focaccia (across Italy)
  • Cacio e Pepe (in Rome)
  • Lentil soup in Umbria (be sure it is not made with sausage) and traditional Tuscan soups, such as ribollita, papa al pomodoro, and white bean soups. If you are very strict, you should ask if they use meat stock.
  • Gnocchi, especially alla sorrentina or with burro e salvia (across Italy)
  • Bruschetta
  • Pesto with gnocchi or local handmade pasta trofie, Borage Ravioli (Liguria/Cinque Terre)
  • Pasta alla Norma, Caponata (Sicily and Southern Italy)

Celiacs


Whereas announcing your vegetarianism can often flummox your restaurant server, you will find that informing them of that you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance doesn't cause them to miss a beat.Though Italian food is associated most strongly with pizza and pasta, Italy is, somewhat surprisingly, incredibly accommodating to celiacs, as a disproportionately high percentage of Italians suffer from celiac disease and there was public awareness of it - including routine screening for children and state subsidies for sufferers - long before it became a household word in the US.

Travelers who follow a gluten free diet will find that most chefs and waiters are matter-of-factly familiar with celiac disease, and Italian food manufacturers produce excellent gluten free food (readily found in larger supermarkets and some pharmacies). In restaurants and bars, you can often find gluten-free croissants, pasta, beer, pizza, and gelato.

If you are very severely celiac, you may wish to carry a card in Italian with you so you can be sure that your dietary requirements are understood, but generally a simple “Sono celiaca/o” - pronounced che-LEE-ah-kah is all you'll need to get the message across.

IMG_0386(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Gluten-Free Dishes to Order in Italy


Though Italian cuisine has roots of “cucina povera” or rustic poor cuisine that heavily favors carbohydrates, legumes, and vegetables, its post-war economic boom has led to a rapid growth in the consumption of meat, dairy, and seafood. If you are looking to avoid gluten, skip the “primi” section of the menu altogether and browse the “secondi”, which are the second courses featuring meat and fish.

Slicing Prosciutto di Norcia(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Italians make excellent roast potatoes, seasonal vegetable side dishes (look under contorni), and legumes. Avoid fried vegetables, which are often doused in flour or a flour-based batter, vegetables au gratin, which are prepared with bread crumbs, and legume soups which add grains.

  • Risotto (northern Italy)
  • Polenta (northern Italy)
  • Affettati, or charcuterie platters, and cheese platters (across Italy)
  • Lentil soup in Umbria and traditional Tuscan bean soups. Make sure that there are no added grains, such as barley or spelt, or crusty bread, often used as a thickener or placed at the bottom of the bowl.
  • Pork (Umbria and Tuscany), beef (Tuscany and Piemonte), lamb (Rome)
  • Fish and seafood (Venice, along the coast, and southern Italy)
  • Truffle frittata (Umbria, Tuscany, Piemonte)
  • Gelato

black-truffles-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Food Allergies


If you accidentally eat a bit of meat as a vegetarian, it will mostly make your conscience suffer. If you mistakenly eat gluten as a celiac, you will feel ill for a few days. But if you have a severe food allergy, you may be talking life or death, and should be prepared. It is a good idea to carry a translated food allergy card with you, and always double check if you have any doubts.

Nuts: Luckily, Italy is a bit of a haven for those who have peanut allergies. Peanuts are not a common ingredient in food here, and are almost exclusively found as a snack food in bars to pair with a cocktail or beer. You should be cautious about fried foods, which may be prepared in peanut oil, but otherwise be able to avoid contact with peanuts without too much trouble. Other nuts, including walnuts and hazelnuts, are trickier, as they are used in a number of Italian desserts (and some savory recipes).

Eggs: Eggs are used in most fresh pasta, including that used to make ravioli, lasagne, tagliatelle, and tortellini, so stick to dried pasta. Eggs are also used in most desserts (including tiramisu), and batter used to fry vegetables and meat. Also check with gelato flavors, as some use fresh eggs.

Dairy: The further south into Italy you travel, the more common dairy allergies are and the easier it is to avoid lactose. In the north, butter and cheese dominate menus, where further south most everything is prepared with olive oil and fish or seafood. Be cautious with desserts and ask for pasta without parmesan (some restaurants automatically sprinkle their pasta dishes).

Related Links:
Ordering at a Restaurant in Italy: Rules and Exceptions
La Trattoria di Famiglia: An Italian Icon
Pasta Primer for Italy

Updated from May 7, 2013 post.



Contributor: Rebecca Winke

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