Vegetarian, Vegan, and Gluten-Free Traveling in Italy with a Special Diet

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Many tourists love Italy’s food. It is possible to eat your way through Italy. This strategy is accepted by many people, not just you. It might seem daunting to eat out in Italy if you have any dietary restrictions.

It doesn’t matter if your dietary requirements are based on religious beliefs or allergies. Knowing what’s on your plate is crucial. These are some helpful tips and resources to help you be a well-informed diner.

Eating in Italy: Some General Information

Italians love food. They love their food. They believe they have the best food in the world and want you to enjoy what they offer. It means that many Italian chefs will do everything they can to ensure you are satisfied with your meal, even if it’s not what you want. It can be challenging to get to this point if you don’t speak the language.

I have seen waiters in Italy acknowledge that someone is vegetarian and not think adding pork to the soup would be a problem. In Italy, where vegans and vegetarians are very rare, it is not helpful to declare yourself as such. It is better to be specific about the foods you cannot eat. The best way to do this is to discuss digestion.

Yes, I do. It’s a funny topic to discuss with a waiter but it’s real.

It is a common problem for Italians to say “I don’t eat X,” no matter what X means for them. Although the words are clear, it is difficult to put it into practice. Italians are instead obsessed with digestion. This is not hyperbole. You’ll find many ads for digestive aids if you look at Italian TV. It’s not about being able to speak the language. It’s about knowing which phrase to use. “I don’t digest X” works well in situations where “I don’t eat X” can fail.

Keep in mind, however, that not all restaurants in Italy can accommodate individual diners. Do your research about the local cuisine before you go. You’ll be able to determine if you are able to eat any of the dishes on the menu without having to have a conversation with your waiter. You can then limit your exchange to asking questions about the dish you are considering. This will allow you to keep the exchange short and sweet.

Here are some useful phrases and vocabulary words that will help you put this all into practice:

  • non posso digerire – (non POSS|oh dee|jeh|REE|reh) – I can’t digest …
  • ho una allergia grave – (oh OO|nah al|lehr|GEE|ah GRAH|veh) – I have a grave allergy …
  • zah) – it is without …
  • carne – (KAR|neh) – meat
  • formaggio – (for|MAH|joh) – cheese
  • frutti di mare – (FROO|tee dee MAH|reh) – fish/shellfish
  • glutine – (GLOO|tee|neh) – gluten
  • noci – (NOH|chee) – nuts
  • uova – (WOH|vah) – eggs

Laurel, a reader, for the above phrase about a grave allergy. Do you have any other food words that I should add? Please let me know!

Italy Food Allergies

It may be a bit of a shock to some travelers who don’t eat meat, but it won’t cause them any harm. It can be scary to eat out if you have a food allergy. It doesn’t need to be in Italy. There are many translation resources available and an increasing awareness about food allergies among Italians. However, some allergies can be more difficult to manage.

Gluten Allergies

This is where you will find a variety of pasta dishes in almost every restaurant. It can be difficult to avoid gluten, but it is possible. There are a few non-gluten “pasta” options, such as polenta or risotto depending on where you live. You can also skip the second course and opt for meat or fish for dinner. Although this is not a common practice, some restaurants offer gluten-free pizza or pasta dough. Ask for an alternative, but make sure to have a backup dish in case you need it.

Dairy Allergies

Some evidence suggests that preservatives added to American dairy products cause allergic reactions. However, some people can tolerate gelato and cheese from Italy that they cannot eat at home. If you don’t want the hassle of a test on the ground, there are many gelato flavors that are dairy-free in most cases – they are called “sorbetti” by gelaterie. In the United States, many restaurants use copious amounts (some might even say criminal) butter. However, most Italian dishes are made with olive oil as the base.

Nut Allergies

Peanuts are the most common nut allergy that I have come across. This nut is almost unheard of in Italy. You can use the term “noci” to identify an allergy to nuts. But, it is best to be specific about your allergy. Remember that pesto, which appears to be nut-free, is actually made with pine nuts.

Fun fact? It is possible to have peanut allergies in Italy. However, allergies to fava beans are more common in Italy.

Vegetarian and Vegan Diets in Italy

As I mentioned earlier, giving a vegetarian diner a soup that contains pork product isn’t considered a violation of their diet. Prosciutto, and other pork products, are not considered meat to many Italians. They are considered flavor. Why would you give up flavor?

This is the time to be more specific about what you won’t eat, and make sure that the soup doesn’t contain pancetta or any other cheese.

It is common for vegetables to be side dishes in Italy (“contorni”) and not on the same plate with your main dish. This means that you can make a complete meal from side dishes veggies and still be satisfied. There may be plenty of choices for the first (pasta), course of the menu. You should make sure that the veggies aren’t flavored with any meat, dairy or other substances.

Italy: Religious Dietary Restrictions

Italy is dominated by Catholicism, however in larger cities there is an increase in Jews and Muslims. Therefore finding Kosher or Halal food is not difficult. You can also visit areas of the country without specifically-labeled Kosher and Halal restaurants.

Italy: Resources for Travelers Needing Special Diets

The internet is an amazing place. Although this is not a complete list of resources that anyone with dietary restrictions should know about, it’s a good start. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

  • Episode 38 – Two long-term expats from Italy gave us great advice about where to find the best food and how to tell a waiter what you eat.
  • Walks of Italy This article is very good and includes specific suggestions for dishes that can be prepared to accommodate different dietary restrictions.

Italy’s Food Allergies Resource Guide

  • Allergy translation cards Cards that you keep with you and which list your allergies in many languages.
  • Choose Wisely Food & Travel Translator Cards – Cards that you keep with you and which list your allergies (including drug allergies).
  • Italian Celiac Association The English language version is very minimal. The Italian version is available via a clickable map located on the main page. Select the region you are interested in, and a new site will be launched. These sites may have some useful information that you can use, or you could contact them for more information. You might find travel guides or documents that you can download and bring along. The site is great if you can speak Italian or are familiar with Google Translate, but it can be difficult to navigate.
  • Gluten Free in Italy – Jodi, my pal with celiac disease has a great article about being gluten-free and living in Italy. It’s especially helpful if you want to know why Italians are so open to dietary restrictions (and gluten issues in particular).

Italy’s Vegetarian & Vegan Resources

  • Viaggia Vegan – Although this guide is only available in Italian, it includes 130 properties that are vegan-friendly across Italy as of 2015. The majority of the places are restaurants. However, it also includes shops and lodgings that use “cruelty free” products. The price of the guide is EUR19.
  • Happy Cow – Vegetarian Restaurants & Health Food Stores In Italy – This list can be adjusted to show only vegetarian or vegan places.
  • The Beehive guide to Rome The charming folks behind The Beehive, a hotel/hostel/cafe in Rome, have compiled a list with their top recommendations. They are particularly focused on vegan and vegetarian restaurants in each neighborhood. They offer vegetarian and vegan meals a few times per week at their cafe (reservations are recommended).
  • NaturaSi – This “natural” supermarket chain is available in Italy if you are staying in a property with a kitchen. This page contains a list all the cities that have NaturaSi shops. Although the site is in Italian, the alphabetical order of the cities is used.
  • Visiting Italy As a Vegetarian These are some helpful suggestions for vegetarian dishes you can order in major Italian cities. However, it doesn’t mention double checking if there is pork in the dish.
  • Vegan Backpacker Florence These are some of the best places to find vegan pizza and gelato throughout Florence.

Italy’s Religious Diet Resources

  • Jewish Italy – This website covers all kinds of Jewish places in Italy. You can choose to view the “Kosher food” or “restaurants” categories for more information.
  • Shamash The Kosher database allows you to search the entire country or specific areas.
  • Zabihah This website claims to be the “original and largest global guide to Halal restaurants, markets and markets.” Below is the section that’s specific to Italy. It’s broken down by region.
  • Chowhound – Halal Dining in Italy This thread on Chowhound can be used to suggest specific dishes that aren’t made with pork or pork fat.
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4 Responses to “Vegetarian Vegan Gluten-Free Traveling in Italy with a Special Diet”

  • Excellent article!

    A useful phrase to help those suffering from allergies is “Ho un allergia a rosemarino/alle me/ai latticini”.

    • Jess has the following:

      Thanks, Laurel! I will add this phrase. However, I wonder if it would be better to say “I don’t digest” instead of “I have an allergic reaction”?

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