A hot dog and french fry pizza?
Definitely did not expect to find that in a country famous for incredible food and wine. But in Capri, my husband ordered, ate, and LOVED it. In fact, he ate all the incredible food Italy offered for three weeks straight. Who wouldn’t?
I have a food allergy or two. Ok -- several. My food no-go list is gluten, dairy, chicken, and almonds. It’s also a list of the basic ingredients for the best food in Italy - to an American.
It’s embarrassing and exhausting to be THAT person in a restaurant going over the menu dish by dish with the waitstaff. And possibly impossible when dining in a country where you don’t speak the native language!
Have Food Allergies - Will Travel
But it’s not like you can leave your food allergies at home.
So, you may be asking, “Is it worth it to travel to a country known for its food and wine when you’re such a weird eater? Is it even worth traveling at all?”
I say yes... and I don’t just say it - I scream it!
BUT. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. And, after two trips to Italy, I managed to do it REALLY wrong and then finally get it perfecto.
First a disclaimer - I wasn’t always THAT person. B.A. (Before Allergies), I was a ‘foodie’ and even owned a Food + Wine business in the Napa Valley. I tried every kind of food anywhere. Please let me taste it! I lived for the unexpected bite exploding in flavor.
Then my late forties hit and food-lovin' me crashed head first into a string of health issues -- all too embarrassing to describe. My eating life changed forever.
Except for my first trip to Italy. I flat out rebelled against the stupid allergies, eating all the fabled food and drinking lattes daily. For three weeks, I devoured pasta, risotto, and pizza while traveling from Rome to Venice and back to Florence. The whole trip slurping up mind-blowing gelato. I really thought I was getting away with it, no repercussions.
Until my last morning in Florence.
I dragged my suitcase to the train station with a raging fever, wheezing, coughing, nearly incoherent -- and ate my final pizza. Because - maybe it wasn’t from the food I ate that’s poison to my system?
Italy. Take 2.
I went back.
Italy is, well - Italy, and there’s so much to love about the country besides the food. I wanted to see more of it and I was ready to live on espresso and wine if necessary. And, while I did have both of those beverages multiple times a day, I also ate great CLEAN food...all without overthinking or overplanning how food was going to work for me!
Yeah, it was challenging, but also - not as hard as I imagined.
What did I do differently? Something amazing. In a flash of sheer brilliance (in my humble opinion) - I looked past the pasta and pizza on the menu.
Guess what I found? Amazing seafood, beef, and fresh vegetables dishes. Every. Single. Time.
I learned enough Italian to tell the waitstaff “Nessun latticino” and “Nessun gluten.”
The day I ate risotto I cried. The first bite exploded with flavor in a mouth that never thought it would experience that again. I felt free!
Having food allergies can feel like being in food prison where you’re served the same strict diet every day. You dream about what you’ll eat if you ever ‘get out’. If you have severe food allergies maybe you get me?
The risotto was made with vegetable broth, fresh asparagus, and black truffles. No, I couldn’t have it with Parmigiano Reggiano, but I didn’t miss it at all.
Somehow, the texture was creamy.
(So creamy, in fact, I had a momentary freak out thinking “OH. NO. I’m going to die.” My brain couldn’t process the flavor as being safe AND tasting so good.)
The risotto experience was repeated everywhere we traveled on that trip. Great food, safe for me and with incredible, fresh flavor. And wine.
A Food Itinerary for the Hopelessly Allergic
Breakfast is tough when traveling with my food allergies. Take away eggs, bread/pastries, and creamy cheesy sauces and it’s grim.
In Italy, I found the prima colazione (breakfast) included espresso, fresh fruit, sauteed zucchini and mushrooms, and meat! While Italians typically have lattes with bread or rolls, butter, and jam for prima colazione, the other options were available for me every day.
Gluten-free baked goods are everywhere in Italy - in supermarkets, bakeries, and pharmacies. Yes, pharmacies because Italy considers gluten allergies a health problem. (Uh - Hello? America?) I passed on these in case they were made with almond flour, eggs or some type of dairy - but that’s weird eating me.
Here’s an overview of my food itinerary:
In Milan for only 36 hours, our food stops were pretty spontaneous. The hotel concierge suggested dinner in the Navigli canal area, so we grabbed a cab and found a string of outdoor cafes and restaurants hugging the bank of the Navigli Grande Canal. Fresh seafood, artistic antipasto, and wine under the stars and cafe lights (now that’s Amore!). I ate the non-cheese portions of the antipasti platters, salad, and grilled sea bass.
Next stop - the Amalfi coast where we stayed a week in the quiet, luxurious Relais Savarese in Sant’Agnello Sorrento. We ate on rooftops with ocean views and in seaside caves. We stopped at outdoor cafes in crazy intersections in Sorrento and stonewalled restaurants in Ravello. Every place, without exception, offered fresh meat, seafood, fruit, and veggies prepared a little differently.
And there was always wine!
Can I just take a second and tell you about our theory that you can have GOOD wine probably anywhere in Italy? To prove it, we ordered a glass of red at a gas station outside Montelpuciano one day. If you happened to be driving by, we were the people at the rickety wrought iron table, outside the mechanics bay, sipping and beaming. It tasted heavenly.
Loving (Gluten Free) Tuscany
Of all the regions we traveled to on this trip, Tuscany won my little weird eater’s heart. Probably because of our amazing hosts at the Montelpuciano agriturismo we lived in for a week. Alex and Ingrid, expats from Venezuela who lived in the area for over fifty years, shared local history, stories, and their home with us.
Even though he didn’t go with us, Alex became our unofficial tour guide to Tuscany. He gave us roughed out routes every day, and we’d hop in the rental Fiat and discover castles and ancient Roman baths and FOOD. He knew a chef in every town, and he knew my allergies, so he didn’t just recommend a restaurant - he called ahead to tell the chef what I couldn’t eat.
One night he did come with us to a hard to find and tiny cafe he recommended in Montelpuciano. We followed his car on the winding roads at twilight. At the cafe, he came inside to introduce us to the chef and then for “just one glass of wine!” The placemat he drew our next day’s route on is framed in our living room now, olive oil stains crossing over scribbled directions.
Could I’ve skipped traveling to a food mecca like Italy - just played it safe and wise after my reckless dining abandon on my first trip? Sure.
But I wasn’t going to let my weird eating define my life and my travels, so I went -- and looked what happened.
Yes, the beds were terrible from one end of Italy to the next (but that’s another story - stay tuned). Going back there allowed me to enjoy a side of Italy I’d missed before - one that few ever get to taste - and it was so worth it!
Have you experienced Italy with food allergies? I’d love to hear how you made it work, what you discovered, and everything you tasted (drank) in the comments below. (Can you tell I’m planning for my third trip?!?)