For the last 5 years it seems as though the nutrition field has exploded worldwide. All of a sudden, a vast majority of the educated world knows what the word “gluten” means. Both self-made and qualified nutritionists are popping up with websites and blogs all over the place, for better or worse. Cookbooks are no longer necessary (but us foodies still have them) because of all of the recipes available within one click’s time. Within this growing field and ever more globalized world come people who are more aware of food and their bodies, along with those who are obsessive without needing to be. Finding balance and filtering information can be cumbersome, even downright exhausting. Doing this while on vacation, however, can be difficult if you haven’t done your research, and this can annoy your friends and family who just want to eat a Pizza Napolitana without hearing a peep from you.
Here are some tips for how to function in Italy when you’re a selective eater without being labeled an annoying picky eater:
- For those with food ALLERGIES (in caps because nowadays this word is overused, causing people with life-threatening food allergies to be misunderstood):
- Translate your specific allergies into Italian before you go. Some of the most common are gluten/glutine, lactose/lattosio, soy/soia.
- Learn a few very important phrases, as illustrated below:
- Look for the words senza glutine (without gluten).
- Bisogno qualcosa senza glutine. (I need something without gluten.)
- If the server says si (yes) you know it’s possible, and if you hear no, then you will need to find another place.
- Try to be upfront about your allergies as soon as you arrive at the restaurant.
- Don’t regard your allergy as a handicap when wishing to try Italian cuisine. View it as something that will help you narrow down your choices, because everything’s so good that you will have a hard time choosing what to eat.
- Primi piatti (first plates) are going to be your basic starches like pastas and risottos. If you have an allergy to gluten or dairy, you need to be upfront with your server when ordering a primi.
- You will find that a lot of restaurants serve gluten free pasta and make gluten free pizza dough. You can also order pizza without cheese, which is what I do.
- For people with food sensitivities or intolerances: My biggest advice to you would be to choose your battles. If you are someone who stays away from cow milk products, try to order things with cheese from pecorino (sheep) or capra (goat). If you are like Drew and I, then you need to develop a normal pattern for living that suits your needs since this is home. But if you are just visiting for a week, try to come up with your own personal ultimatum. (I will absolutely NOT eat this, but I CAN be lenient in these areas.) Do this so that you can figure out when cheating will be ok and you won’t have a reaction. You will be tempted by all kinds of culinary delights, so make your plan in advance. For instance, if you react poorly to sugar and stay away from dessert and sweets in general, are you going to be able to try an Italian gelato at least once? I certainly hope so, but you will need to decide what will be best for you and your situation. You’re on vacation and you should be able to live a little!
- For vegetarians: Most Europeans are not stereotypically vegetarian, but I have met
many Italian vegetarians since living here. The good news for you is, you can always order contorni (side dishes) that are cooked nicely and usually fresh. I would recommend that you peruse the list of primi first, as the secondo is usually a meat or fish-based dish. You should also learn the phrase sono vegetariana (I’m a vegetarian) and try to ask politely vorrei qualcosa vegetariana (I would like something vegetarian). In my opinion, being a vegetarian is easy here in Italy with an abundance of fresh vegetables and home-style cooking that supports them, but being a vegan is more difficult. If you are vegan, learn the phrase sono vegana (I am vegan) and you will also need to tell yourself which battles to choose. For instance, you may end up eating a lot of bread or snack food if you are backpacking and constantly on the move between train stations and sights. Will you be ok with that?
- For people who don’t drink alcohol: I honestly haven’t felt a lot of pressure to over-drink here, but people do drink socially. If you read Expectations When In Italia, then you know that going for an aperitivo (pre-lunch or dinner drink) is much more common to catch up with friends then going for a coffee. If you’re invited to go for one, don’t decline just because you don’t drink alcohol! You can go there and order a gingerino, which is a non-alcoholic aperitivo, or even a juice. Yes, there will be wine at dinner and often even at lunch, and you will see people drinking it. If you feel pressured to drink alcohol in these instances, then tell everyone you’re the DD, and they will respect your decision. Italians take driving very seriously and drinking and driving even more seriously. If you are sick of drinking water with every meal, you could order a soft drink or juice.
- For people who don’t drink caffine: You can order a cappucino or normal expresso with decaffinated coffee. Un cafe decaffinato is what you’ll be after. If you are traveling and enjoy having decaffinated beverages, I’d recommend bringing your own herbal tea bags and possibly instant decaf coffee packets. Not everyone will be super happy to make you decaffinated coffee, as that is generally not done, but Drew and I have survived for the last year and a half ordering decaffeinated coffee, so it can be done.
- For people who like breakfast: An Italian breakfast usually consists of a coffee and a brioche, which is how they call most of their pastries. If you are expecting a hearty German, British or American breakfast, you will be disappointed. If you are staying away from gluten or sugar, you will need to come up with some kind of plan about what to do. Remember that there are restaurants and hotels that cater to European/American tourists, so you may be able to find a big breakfast sometimes, but that will be the exception and not the rule.
I’ll use my own nutritional habits as an example so that you can understand the “choosing your battles” mantra. I am a semi-vegetarian (eating poultry and seafood), sensitive to dairy products, prefer to keep starches and animal protein seperate, try not to consume processed soy, and try not to consume sugar or overly-processed products. Here’s how I would function if we ate out for every single meal. Remember that we live here, so this is and example of how I function when we go on vacation to neighboring regions in Italy and other European countries, and not how I really eat every single day:
- Breakfast: If we’re at a hotel that has a nice spread, I’ll load up on fruit. Depending on how I’m feeling, I may also eat eggs for protein. If we are staying at a place without breakfast offered, it means we’re going to a cafe and ordering a coffee/brioche there. Bananas are fairly easy to find here and could be a good alternative. If we’re ever at a hotel with a delightfully amazing spread, I throw my rules out the window and eat less the rest of the day. Case in point: we used our hotel points to stay at the Conrad in London for Thanksgiving and could survive half the day on the amazing breakfast that was served there. That helped us save money since we only had 2 meals+a snack per day.
- Lunch and Dinner: When ordering a primi, I look for one that is vegetable based so that I won’t be eating starch and animal protein at the same time. Instead of snacking on bread and breadsticks at the table, I usually try to order una insalata avanti primi (a salad before the first course). Italians will bring you a salad after your main course, but I would prefer to have veggies immediately, since you all know I’m obsessed with eating the veggies. When ordering a secondo, I stick with poultry and seafood. We rarely get dessert, but I will succumb to a molten lava dark chocolate cake, which I think is the most genius idea ever.
- Things with Dairy: Dairy doesn’t agree with me, so I’ve eaten it less and less, but I probably won’t ever cut it out completely. I stick with pecorino and capra cheeses, but also have become more lenient on my starch-with-animal-protein rule for a dusting of grana over my primi. To me, there is nothing as beautiful as grana, which is very similar to parmeggiano.
- Gelato: I can’t give this up. I stick with places that are local in order to ensure high quality and less fake ingredients. I also try to look for the words biologico or artiginale, which ensure that it’s higher quality. I am usually happy to find that the fruit flavors are dairy free, and many gelaterias make an amazing cioccolata fondente (dark chocolate) flavor without dairy. I always check to make sure there is no soy added by asking senza latte, senza soia (without milk, without soy).
Hopefully I’ve given you some great strategies when thinking about your own dietary needs while traveling in Italy. Remember not to let your food preferences get in the way of visiting this amazing country!