Gluten-Free Travel: Milan, Italy

Like every gluten-free person, I think a lot about food. And when it comes to travel, food looms large in my planning — both during the trip and when I arrive at my destination. And when that travel involved a business trip to Milan, Italy, well, my “What am I going to to eat?” radar went wild.

It wasn’t hard to worry; Italy is the land of pizza, panini, and pasta. Plus, well, my Italian is less-than-fluent.

Initial research suggested I was worrying for nothing. Apparently, Italy, as a whole, is very aware of issues for people with celiac disease and/or gluten intolerance. Children are tested for celiac at a young age, and GF foods are widely available.

And, in my experience, this is mostly true. I ate well during my trip to Italy, encountering only a few bumps in my culinary road. I found that waiters and others were willing to assist me with menus. And, trips to local pharmacies and grocery stores revealed dedicated gluten-free (or, senza glutine) sections. It’s a weird thing to be standing in line, waiting to buy a bottle of shampoo because I’d forgotten to pack it, only to discover I was staring at a wall of GF foods, including a vacuum-sealed package containing four slices of Schar’s bread.

(I didn’t buy that bread. I bought the gluten-free piadina, a type of flatbread that went so well with fresh-cut slices of Parma ham and a soft Parmesan cheese.)

Because eating in restaurants was the rule, I had to quickly make it known that I am gluten-free. This is amazingly easy: just memorize this phrase (adapted to your gender). Io sono celiaca (female) / celiaco (male). This is roughly pronounced as “ee-oh soh-no chee-lee-ah-kah” or “chee-lee-ah-koh”.

This means “I am (have) celiac”. I also wrote this on a card to make it easier in those moments when restaurants were loud (or my Italian pronunciation wasn’t at it’s best). While there were staff in some restaurants who weren’t familiar with this phrase, there was always someone who understood and guided me through the menu.

But I also helped myself by knowing how various Italian foods are generally prepared. For example, Risotto Milanese is largely rice, saffron, chicken broth, and Parmesan cheese, so I felt extremely comfortable ordering this dish (after explaining my GF status!).

In fact the only time I had an issue was due to a miscommunication — absolutely my fault! — between me and a server. I thought he’d pointed to a particular dish, featuring rice, as gluten-free. It turned out he was trying to make it clear this dish was not safe because the rice was cooked in the same water as regular pasta.

That night, because we were in a pizza joint, I ended up enjoying (and I mean this sincerely) what a friend calls “a big plate of shaved meat”. I noted that another member of our large party, who also has celiac, had the same thing. I think some of the other diners in our group were jealous!

Because we were attending a conference, both of us knew conference meals would be a challenge. After glancing at the buffet being offered at lunch, and lusting after the roasted vegetables, I headed back to my hotel because I needed protein. The restaurant gave me a lunch plate of sliced meat (theme?) and gluten-free bread. This other gentleman took a cab across town to a restaurant he’d found on the Internet. In his defense, he wasn’t speaking directly after lunch as I was.

And, at breakfast, the hotel featured a selection of gluten-free products, mostly crackers and such, to go with breakfast meats and cheeses. There was also yogurt and plenty of juice.

Overall, the only problem with food I had was at a gelato stand. The server stuck a cookie in my cup of gelato before I realized it. Luckily, my husband heroically cleared away the cookie and offending crumbs (commenting on how delicious my lemon gelato was in the process). We spent a week traveling through airports, on planes, wandering an amazing city, and back again, and I well…and safely! Plus, once the conference was done, my husband and I walked an average of seven miles a day as we touristed to our hearts’ content.

So, go to Italy, my gluten-free friends! And enjoy the food as much as the wonderful sites.

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