Gluten Free Italy: A Celiac’s guide to Umbria
I know, this seems to come out of left field. But I’ve been meaning to pull together a quick travel resource for celiacs travelling to Umbria for awhile…not because I have a gluten intollerance, but because we have a strangely disproportionate number of celiac guests. This for two reasons: 1) celiacs tend to stay in self-catering accommodations where they have access to their own kitchen and 2) Shauna Ahern, aka star celiac blogger and cookbook author, stayed with us a couple years back during her honeymoon (just for the record, she and new hubby were the cutest little piccioncini—lovebirds—and are now parents) and we’ve had many of her readers as guests.
Let me preface this by saying that though Italy is often associated with pizza and pasta, it is–somewhat counterintuitively—one of the best gluten free countries in the world. There is a very high awareness of celiac disease here, children are routinely screened for it, and celiacs get a state subsidy for the cost of their gluten free foods. People 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 some of the best gluten free food (which is readily found in larger supermarkets). In restaurants and bars, I have come across gluten-free croissants, pasta, beer, pizza, and gelato.
All this to say that I’m not being a hero. Not a lot of sleuthing had to go into this, just a bit of organization (and some translating).
Gluten Free Travel Resources for Italy
The sine qua non to tripping through Italy gluten-free is Maria Ann Roglieri’s The Gluten-Free Guide to Italy. The downside is that—like all printed guides—the restaurant information can go quickly out of date. However, there is an extensive glossary and sample questions to ask restaurant staff, and many of the suggestions are still valid (the latest edition is from 2009).
For a more updated guide to regional restaurants, bars, pizzerie, and gelaterie which offer gluten free options, you can check the Italian Celiac Association’s website. It’s not translated into English, but you can choose a category from the list at the left (example: Ristorante) and then the region (Umbria) from the drop down menu at the bottom. From there, you get a list with the location (by town), category (hotel, restaurant, pizzeria, or albergo (inn)), and and name. There is also a regional Celiac website, but their restaurant list just sends you back to the national website.
If you feel awkward about stumbling over an explanation as to your dietary restrictions in Italian, you can simply download and print celiac restaurant cards in Italian here.
There is also a new iPhone app that maps out the nearest gluten free dining options. The text is in Italian, but the list is easy to decipher and the maps are your standard Google maps. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much for the region of Umbria, but if you are hopscotching around Italy you may find it helpful.
Where to Buy Gluten Free Food in Umbria
Keep in mind that the gluten free (senza glutine) label in Italy looks like this:
The best place to get gluten free food simply at the grocery store. And the best grocery store in our area is the Ipercoop at Collestrada. Coop (the chain of supermarkets) makes their own line of gluten free products, easily identifiable by the white and mint-green packaging. Aside from their own line, they also stock a variety of gluten free foods from other producers at a fraction of the cost of the pharmacy (see below). The shelving is a little unpredictable (sometimes the gluten free pasta is shelved with all the other pastas, but sometimes they seem to group all the gluten free products into one display near the pharmacy section) so you may have to comb the store pretty well and watch your labelling, but from pasta to flour to bread to frozen pizza to crackers to snack cakes to cookies…it’s all here, and relatively inexpensive.
I have noticed that other area grocery stores stock gluten free items, but seem to have less variety and consistency than the Ipercoop. Smaller Coop grocery stores, for example, may stock some of the Coop gluten free line, but not as completely as the Collestrada flagship store. If you are popping into a supermarket to pick up something, it may be worth it to take a quick look around. But with the Ipercoop, you know you are going to hit gold.
For a little more grain variety, you can also try the health food store in Perugia. There are a couple, which are all part of the B’Io organic market chain, but the easiest one to find is just up the road from the Perugia train station at Via M. Angeloni, 42 (it’s on the right as you are climbing the one-way street). They stock goods made with kamut, rice, spelt, and corn flour and a variety of soy products, as well, if you are looking for lactose free products.
As a last resort, you can purchase gluten free food at any pharmacy in Italy (the bigger the pharmacy, the more variety they will probably have, of course). I say as a last resort simply because it is usually the most expensive, inconvenient, and restrictive option. But it is there, in case you find yourself in a bind and can’t make it to either a Coop or a health food store.
Where to Eat Gluten Free Food in Umbria
The gluten free restaurant emblem in Italy looks like this:
It seems like every menu I run across lately has a little star next to the gluten free dishes on offer, so it’s pretty daunting—if not impossible–to make an exhaustive list. Just casually mentioning this blog post to a friend solicited two gluten free pizzeria suggestions that I had never heard of.
A good place to start is the Italian Celiac Association’s website mentioned above. I gave it a cursory glance and noticed one restaurant listed that has since closed and one I know which serves gluten free options not included, so your mileage may vary. I recommend phoning first just to confirm that they do, indeed, have dishes for celiacs available.
I will also be listing restaurants here as I review them when I see that they offer gluten free options. If I actually eat something from the gluten free menu, I will be sure to mention it. Otherwise, you can use it as a guide to the general quality and vibe of a place. Check back periodically, as I will be updating the list over time.
Finally, ask around. As I mentioned before, Italians are generally quite well informed about celiac disease (and many have friends or family who are on gluten free diets), so I’ve often found that word of mouth is a great way to discover local restaurants and pizzerias who will be happy to accommodate your diet.
What to Eat Gluten Free in Umbria
You’ve hit the jackpot in Umbria, as some of its best local foods are naturally gluten free. While you’re here, make sure you sample the famous pork charcuterie (including prosciutto, salame, and dried sausages) from Norcia, the porchetta (whole roasted pork) from the street vendors’ white vans, wild asparagus, mushrooms, and truffles (depending upon the season), Sagrantino wine, extra virgin olive oil, and legumes (lentils from Castelluccio, fagiolino from Lake Trasimeno, and the chickpea’s close cousin: cicerchie). Sure, Italy may be known for its pasta and pizza, but the traditional cuisine is so much more than that…and much of it senza glutine. Enjoy every bite!