Saturday, January 31, 2009

Great Tips for Celiacs Travelling to Italy

Italy is a spectacular country to visit, Celiac or not, and I don’t think I need to convince you of that. As a Celiac there are a few things you should know that will just make your life much easier and relaxing, like a real vacation should be. For whatever few days of vacation you have a year, you don’t want to be stressing about what you can and cannot eat and how to communicate your needs. The Italian are tremendously helpful and many speak English and are willing to try to speak with you in English. Of course, I always recommend learning a few words and phrases in the native tongue of the country you are visiting, but if worse comes to worse, they will help you out. They may get emotional at times, but they are proud and most are happy to take some time out of their day to aid a visitor to their beautiful country.

Luckily, most things in Italy are natural so if you buy cheese, it’s cheese. If you buy sundried tomatoes, it’s sundried tomatoes, etc. and you don’t need to worry about hidden gluten as much. Also many products say “senza glutine” (gluten free) or “non contiene glutine” (doesn’t contain gluten) or “non contiene tracce di glutine” (doesn’t contain gluten) or contiene tracce di glutine (may contain gluten). Nonetheless, if you are at the grocery store or deli and want to buy something, read the ingredients and

  • Amido modificato (modified food starch)

  • Glutine (gluten)

  • Grano (wheat)

  • Semolina

  • Durum

  • Kamut

  • Monodigliceridi (monodiglycerides from corn or wheat)

  • Destrosio (could be from maize: safe or grano: not safe!)

Especially be careful with the sliced meats like salami and prosciutto cotto. And if you are casein sensitive or lactose intolerant, it’s best to get your meat from behind the counter and ask for salami, prosciutto cotto, speck, bresaola, etc. that doesn’t contain gluten or casein (che non contiene glutine o lattosio– kay nohn cohn-tee-en-ay glue-teen-ay oh lath-oh-zee-oh). Someone behind the counter usually knows because luckily for us, there are many Celiacs in Italy. If you are a bit shy or don’t want to ask, you will always be safe buying good, ol’ prosciutto. It doesn’t ever contain gluten or casein (Horray!), but it does contain sulfites (being cured meat) if you’re sensitive.

Besides the supermarkets or small delis, you can get good quality gluten free products at the Farmacia. There are pharmacies practically on every street corner, as frequent and widespread as Starbucks or McDonalds in the US. Not all of them sell gluten free products but most of them do. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a pharmacy that has a large and diverse gluten free section with many kinds of pasta, pane (bread), biscotti (cookies), crackers, congelato (frozen) ravioli and pizza and dolci (desserts), merende (snacks), chocolate and budino (pudding), birra (beer), farina per dolci e pizza (flour for desserts and pizza), and more. I remember the first time I went to the Farmacia near my house in Rome, I practically cried. It was a gluten free epicurean paradise and I was overwhelmed (did you hear me correctly? I said OVERWHELMED) by the amount of products without gluten.

Ristornanti, trattorie and osterie (More expensive restaurants, moderately priced trattorie and osterie) are all safe places to eat. Let the waiter know that you are Celiac when ordering. You can say, “Sono Celiaca” (So-no Chel-eee-aka) or “Non posso mangiare glutine, farina di grano, lattosio, uovo…” (Nohn po-sso mahn-jar-ay glue-teen-ay, fah-reena dee grah-no, laht-oh-zee-oh, ooo-oh-voh). Always ask about the meat because the meat can be breaded and fried or cooked on the same grill. “Non c’e farina o glutine?” (Nohn chey fah-ree-na oh glue-teen-ay) The risotto is generally safe for celiacs, but of course ask about the broth they use “Il brodo non contiene glutine?” (Eel Broh-doh nohn cohn-tee-en-ay glue-teen-ay) and no breadcrumbs, “senza pane grattugiato” (sen-tsa pah-nay grah-too-jah-toe) The cotorni (sides) of potatoes and vegetables are safe for celiacs, as are salads and generally meats. Semifreddi (creamish dessert), Gelato (ice cream), Macedonia (like fruit salad but better) and Pannacotta (cooked cream) are also desserts traditionally without gluten.
Almost always they understand Celiac disease and are very accommodating. I have never come across a waiter in Italy who is unfamiliar with celiac disease or gluten. On the contrary, a few times, the server even asked me if I’d like corn or rice pasta that they keep on stock for celiacs!

Tips for those off the gluten path but on the bargain road:

  • Buy food in supermarkets…it’s delicious and cheap…and then take it out to a piazza or park and people watch.

  • Avoid sitting down in Bars (it costs more to sit than stand at the counter) and avoid buying coke (although it does taste better here than the US) in restaurants.

  • Avoid tourists’ areas and explore other areas of the city for normal priced food.

  • Write me, comment and ask questions and I’ll help you out

Other Useful Phrases:

“Mi scusi…” Excuse me (formal)
“Scusa…” Excuse me (informal)
“E’ senza glutine?” Is it without gluten?
“Sono senza glutine?” (They are without gluten)
“E’ senza lattosio?” Is it without casein?
“Sono senza lattosio?” They are without casein.
“Cerco la farmacia, supermercato, etc. Dov’e’?” I’m looking for the pharmacy, supermarket, etc. Where is it?
“Grazie mille!” Thanks so much!


Mamma Mia, I’m in Love with a Gelateria! ~ La Fata Morgana

This gelateria is tucked into the corner of streets Lago di Lesina and via Nemorense between the African Quarter off Corso Trieste and the bourgeois Parioli area. You can barely see it from Via Nemorense (the cross street), as it doesn’t look like much on the outside but once you step through the doors, it’s a paradise-ical gelato wonderland. Any and every flavor you could possibly imagine, even beyond the feeble mind of normal imagination, will be found there anxiously waiting for the right person to come in for a lick. And for us gluten free-ers, it really is heaven on earth since none of the gelato, not even the cones (!!!) contain our dreaded enemy, gluten. Celiacs, it’s time to go buck wild!

Being intolerant of eggs as well, and sensitive to dairy, I still expected very little. I assumed my choices would be limited to the usual lemon or melon or strawberry sorbet. Limited…yes… to 20 flavors, at least! There’s even chocolate with fructose for those who can’t have sugar. And the adventurous owners are always trying new flavors so usually there’s at least new daring and delightful flavor every time I go (I refuse to say how often I go there but let’s just say I’ve contributed my part to the gelato economy).

The first time I was graced by the icy presents of La Fata Morgana, I was teeter tottering between sobbing for joy, and laughing gleefully and guiltlessly. I walked in and asked what flavors were gluten free. Tutti i gusti. All of them? Si, tutti. Then the ragazza behind the counter who was helping me asks if I want a cone or a cup. Coppa, ovviamente sono Celiaca. But the cones are gluten free, and egg and (mostly) dairy free as well, she replies. I don’t know what the look was on my face, utter dumbfoundedness I assume. But the ragazza said it simply, Sei scioccata. Yes. Shocked. To say the very least. And I hadn’t even tried one of the marvelous flavors yet.

You see, these gelato flavors aren’t normal and they aren’t afraid to express themselves. They are proud to be conservative, gluten, preservative, egg (most of them), and dairy (1/3 of them) free. They’re natural like a colony of nudists who don’t have anything to hide. They are the rebels and the revolutionists of gelato. They are the ones who stand up for their rights and are proud to just be themselves. Flirty, dirty, seductive, bubbly, eccentric, egotistical, outgoing, juicy, raw, rich and confident, curvy and just plain sweet as can be. Celery Lime, Poppyseed, Citrus Almond, Panacea (mint, almond and ginseng, my absolute favorite), Coconut Rum, Greek Figs, Gorgonzola and Pear, Plum, Chestnut, Apricot with Chocolate granules, Tobacco Chocolate, Salted Chocolate, White Chocolate with Pine Nuts, Blueberry, Lavender even the normal flavors like Lemon and Melon and Strawberry have a twist. Don’t be afraid though, they’re really just tame softies and who will just soak on your tongue, relaxing and invigorating the senses.

Maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m a gelatist. But after going to La Fata Morgana, I’m tolerant no more of the normal gelateria with their circus colors, and the sugary, buttery overwhelmingness that leaves me feeling sick and tired. Luckily for me and the other thousands (no millions!) of Romans and tourists, there is not only one La Fata Morgana but 3. One is a 5 minute bike ride from my house (in North East Rome nearby Villa Ada), the other a 15 minute walk from my work (in the Vatican area) and the 3rd sister is just a lick away from the largest flea market in Rome and the train that can take you to the beach, Ostia. So no matter where you are in Rome, La Fata Morgana is waiting to entice you, grace you, inspire you, love you, and kiss you.

Locations Precisely:
Via Ostiense 36
Via Lago di Lesina 9/11
Via G. Bettolo 7
On the website they even include recipes to make gluten free gelato at home for those inspired!

My Personal History...Why I Write

I grew up in Sanaa’, Yemen, and Berkeley, California with adventurous parents who hand held my brother and I all over the world to 5 different continents before we were 10. Naturally, travelling is in my blood. I fell in love with Italy on the Almalfi coast when I was 12 and threw a lira into the Trevi Fountain hoping to someday return and live in Rome. And less than 10 years later, I was studying Anthropology and contemporary Art History at the oldest university in Europe in Bologna on a study abroad program and consecutively suffering my initial symptoms of Celiac disease (without being aware it was Celiac). After a depressing, exhausting, and very long 2 years later, I graduated from college at UC Santa Cruz and then was luckily (and shockingly) diagnosed with Celiac Disease. My life changed, my social habits changed and my eating changed but my love affair with Italy and food did not. My first trip back to Italy to visit friends terrified and apprehended me but I immediately noticed that the average Italian person did know what gluten was and were informed about Celiac disease. I had conversations with Italians who told me that Celiac disease is tested in all children before they start school and the health care system even provides an additional 100 Euros a month for each person with Celiac. This sparked my interest that maybe Italy would not be such a bad place to live in. Sometime later with this rational reasoning, “I’m young and unattached so if not now, when, if ever?”, I made my way back, to fulfill my dream of living in Rome, from where I write today.

I used to think, I love food. I love travelling. But I’m a Celiac. These things don’t really go hand in hand. It’s hard enough at home in the Bay Area in California, one of the culinary capitals of the world, to eat out in a restaurant without being accidently contaminated.

But the more I travel and the more I eat, I realize how wrong and backwards I was thinking this…I may as well have thought the world was flat! It is true that us, Celiacs and people with intolerances and sensitivities, have to be very careful and diligent about what we put in our mouths. But why punish ourselves? Why limit ourselves? There is much more to discover in this life beyond the borders of America and the package foods and exhausting lists of unnatural, gluten-ish ingredients.

As a diagnosed Celiac, I’ve been to Ireland, France, England, Spain, Turkey besides living in Italy and let me tell you, I’ve found that eating out in restaurants is a more delightful, relaxing experience than it ever was for me at home. Of course, in some places it’s not easy but that won’t stop me, and I’ve learned a few tricks among the way to share with you. Life is beautiful and it’s short so I’m determined to travel the world, off the gluten path….and I’m inviting you, if you dare, to join me