Would Italy be the same if I have to eat gluten and dairy -(ish) free?

Italy as a holiday destination has it all as far as I’m concerned: good weather, great views, great artwork, ancient ruins – and I’m not talking about the other people on the tour! And not forgetting GOOD FOOD.

This summer I visited Sicily, the much fought over Mediterranean volcanic rock, close to the toe of mainland Italy’s boot. I had a wonderful holiday blessed with sunshine, expert tour guides, personable companions, beautiful resort hotels, ancient Greek temples, Roman hilltop towns and country house mosaics, Norman cathedrals, an active volcano and – last but not least – delicious food. Of course the food was delicious I can hear you cry!

But for the first time ever, I was worried about the food in Italy. Last month I wrote about my new health issues, in particular angina and pre-diabetes, necessitating weight loss to bring my blood sugar levels back to normal. In the longer term, I’m aiming for a more permanent change in lifestyle to potentially ward off serious illness. But, I also mentioned that I was going to have to cope with eating and drinking less/differently in the context of avoiding relatively newly discovered intolerances (wheat/gluten, cow dairy (goat or sheep are OK) wine, glucose/sugar); and substances likely to inflame my hiaitus hernia (spirits eg gin; all fizzy drinks eg Prosecco/ Champagne /Cava and tonic water.)

So taking all that into account, on the food front I was worried about how I would cope. I wasn’t going to stress about dieting on holiday for a week. But how would I cope with watching other diners wolf down steaming bowls of wheat pasta, lick vertiginous towers of melting dairy gelato, tuck into another slice of wheat pizza dripping with melted Mozzarella cheese, and glug back the celebratory Prosecco, cold white wine or local beer. Plus, I was worried about how Italy would cope with me and my food issues – and whether there would be anything for me to tuck into to!

First – the booze! With wine, gin and tonic and Prosecco off limits the only thing left for me was gluten free beer, and it just wasn’t worth the hassle. Before I could run the risk of being tempted to find an excuse for ordering a large cold glass of anything alcoholic in Sicily, I visited my hypnotherapist. Alcohol serves me no purpose, and I didn’t drink it in Sicily or since returning. I’ve been sober for 44 days.

On the food front I need not have worried. The Italian hospitality industry, supermarket chains and local shops and restaurants are wise to gluten intolerance and there is the same range of ‘senza glutina’ products available as there are in the UK. The hotels I was staying in on my tour were notified of my food allergy and intolerances, and quite often tried to tempt me with a gluten free pasta dish or breakfast roll. But well before arriving in Sicily I knew that I was not a fan of manufactured gluten-free products. But it wasn’t an issue in the hotels as both offered breakfast and dinner buffets with plenty of delicious choices of naturally gluten-free food on offer.

Cheese was more of an issue because, at the buffet, it wasn’t labelled to distinguish cow from sheep or goat products. But waiters could usually help me out. Plus, in one hotel, dairy alternatives instead of milk were offered at breakfast time. But, what about the creamiest, most flavour-full, rippliest queen of all ice creams – gelato? I had a divine dairy-free, flavoured ice granita instead. With a choice of many flavours and the offer of two-scoop flavour combinations, a pistachio or raspberry and pomegranate granita was often the highlight of a baking-hot afternoon. And not just with me: granita was often the preference for everyone. Move over gelato – its granita time!

Wheat gluten and cow dairy are both present, of course, in and on the most famous Italian food export – pizza! I have tried gluten free pizza bases in England and frankly I might as well have arranged my toppings on a piece of cardboard before putting it in the oven. So, on two occasions eating out at lunchtime, I was impressed not just by the offer of pizza ‘senza glutina’ – and wood-fired at that – but also by the dough and the finished product. On both occasions an alternative non-cow cheese topping was provided just for me. They were made and presented with the same loving care and attention to detail, in the ingredients and the presentation – and were delicious!

So, I’m pleased to report that my joy at being in Italy was not diminished by my food intolerances: gluten and dairy-free products were available, including high quality pizzas, should I require them. But, if the hotels I stayed in are the norm, buffet-style dining offered a wide range and variety of foods to suit the tastes and dietary needs of most people – without the need to ask for gluten-free spaghetti. Grazie bella Italia!! A presto!

Christine Ingall 7 August 2019