Gluten free girl in Rome

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As any ‘free-fromer’ can imagine, after the initial excitement of booking my flight to Rome in the summer finally wore off, my next initial thought was ‘what the hell am I going to eat’ in a country famous for its wheat and dairy infested pizza, pasta and risotto dishes.

Like many others, there has to be a certain level of planning when booking a holiday and accommodation, and I’m sure I’m not alone in being generally thrilled when I discover that an apartment, such as the one I stayed at in Rome, contains a cooker and utensils, as at least I know that I can cook for myself should I not find anywhere suitable to eat.

Prior to my trip, my Mom had a google of gluten free places to eat in Rome near Vatican City where we were staying and came across a substantial number of suitable restaurants, alongside a printable card which explained to waiters in Italian about my dietary needs. Luckily for me, this card didn’t make an appearance once at the dinner table.

Upon arrival in Rome and once we had settled in, our tummies were grumbling and we all went off in search of a supermarket so that we could cook ourselves something up at the apartment. Although we could find no ‘supermarket’ bigger than what we would class as a corner shop, we stumbled across what looked like a little delicatessen selling booze, olive oil, a range of pasta and essentials such as pesto and sauces.

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Me and my cousin who also suffers from many food intolerances, were amazed when we found gluten free spaghetti, Burts crisps, which of course are handmade in Devon and Angelic gluten free ginger nut biscuits, which actually I struggle to find back home in Blighty even though they are British made. Strangely enough, the normal eaters in our group came out with not much to eat that they fancied and this is the first time ever I’ve found something to eat before they have.

On our second night, we all decided to head out to find the gluten free restaurant, La Soffita, situated in Piazza Del Risorgimento, which was about a five minute walk from us and just outside the walls of Vatican City.

The online menu we had found back home looked amazing as it specifically mentioned gluten free cooking on the homepage, but of course, I was still apprehensive about how much they knew and the language barriers. I needn’t have worried – upon telling them I couldn’t have gluten, I was presented with a list of the five Greens gluten free beers they sold, an extensive choice that I have not had made available to me in England – so far so good I thought.

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Then came the menu, which stated that the majority of dishes could be made gluten free for an additional two euros. I have to admit, the one thing I craved the most whilst in Rome was sampling a proper Roman pizza and here my wish came true. Explaining to my waiter that I couldn’t have cheese as I was dairy free, I asked whether they could do me up a pizza with just the tomato base and meat on top. Not quite the same of course but I was just delighted pizza was on offer to me. My cousin also, who can’t have tomatoes, had a list of choices on the menu of pizzas that could be made without the tomato base, and she too was thrilled to be able to eat pizza. What can I say, with a topping of spicy salami, herbs and cherry toms, my pizza was delicious, the base especially just melting in your mouth with its fine texture.

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Then came the pudding trolley, filled with beautifully presented Italian desserts. Being dairy free also, the puds were still out for me, but I did settle on some melon and my waiter obviously found it funny to put four massive pieces on my plate just in case I wasn’t full enough already. My cousin opted for the gluten free tiramisu which looked absolutely amazing and tasted it too as she told me whilst polishing it off – she couldn’t resist taking a bite before I could get in with my camera.

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Believing I’d just entered heaven and had been cured of having any food intolerances, the waiter then brought out some gluten and dairy free biscuits for us to sample, consisting of biscotti, pistachio and a nutty type biscuit. All I have to say is they were delicious and I came out of the restaurant beaming like a Cheshire cat at being able to eat normally again.

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The one thing I found so amazing about La Soffita, was that all around the restaurant, there were signs up saying that if your meal didn’t arrive with a flag in it, then by no means taste it as it’s not gluten free. Such a simple but great idea filled me with confidence that I was definitely getting the right meal, as there have been many times in England where I have had to check if it’s gluten free, send it back because it isn’t, or just been filled with dread at having to trust the clueless waiters. As I looked around the restaurant I noticed many people with these little flags on their meals out with friends and decided that this was the ‘place to go’ for coeliac’s.

Next day, after hours of sightseeing and with very sore feet, we found a typically Roman restaurant just a short walk from the Trevvi Fountain, which by the way was unfortunately under construction when we went there. Of course, being so close to such as famous tourist attraction, the prices rocketed a little, but both me and my Mom ordered the sea bass which came with a selection of vegetables. The waiters filleted it for me and it tasted lovely, so yet again I managed to eat out without too much trouble and with no confusion with the waiters.

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Our trip to Piazza de Navona was again a successful one. Walking round I saw signs up at restaurants stating that they did gluten free pasta and although the prices were high again due to their location, the place was wonderful and great for people watching. We all decided to stop for ice cream and upon settling at a little café, the waiter said that he could sort me out with some lemon sorbet drizzled with Prosecco. I have to admit, although I like sorbet it’s often my ‘I want pudding but I can’t eat anything’ choice, but let’s face it, I’d never tasted ‘proper’ sorbet before made in Italy. Presented in a long glass and mixed to a smooth, light consistency, I think that’s when I realised that the sorbet sold in England is NOT sorbet, but quite frankly, crushed fruity ice.

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Our last day in Rome and I was loathed to leave. After walking up to the top of St Peter’s Basilica and just stopping for a salad on the way back to the square, I was on the hunt for a snack. Unexpectedly I came across a small Spar and thought I was never going to find anything in there. Pleasantly surprised, I stumbled across a good selection of gluten free pasta and spaghetti, crisps, and plenty of the DS gluten free sweet range, including biscotti obviously made especially for the Italian market. Yet again the gluten free choice in Rome astounded me, now where in England would you walk into a tiny shop and find a great selection of gluten free foods?

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Evening came and of course, where were we going to spend our last night but back at La Soffita. On our last visit we’d seen some Roman women tucking into a platter of fried gluten free food as a starter which looked mouth-wateringly delicious, so we had no choice but to taste for ourselves, both ‘normal’ and ‘gluten free’ eaters, just how good this restaurant was at cooking. We were presented with fig and Parma ham flat bread, cheesy mozzarella balls, arancini balls, breaded courgettes, potato croquettes, sweet peppers, courgettes, tomatoes, and a range of beans. It was now confirmed, I had died and gone to heaven.

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For mains again, both me and my cousin opted for the pizza, hers tomato-less and mine cheese-less, and I finished off every single crumb as I knew I would never eat this well again once back home in England.

Now to finish off an amazing trip, we knew that somewhere in Rome there were ice cream parlours which sold soya and milk free ice creams and although we had all hunted around, we just couldn’t seem to find the one recommended on Google. My cousin, who speaks Italian, went round a few and happened to come across one called Lemongrass which was actually just a street away from where we were staying. They offered a few varieties of dairy free ice cream and gluten free cones, which unfortunately due to the fact that it was past half eleven at night, they had just ran out off. Stuffed to the brim from my delicious meal, I managed to polish off a pure cocoa and banana ice cream which tasted absolutely divine. Yet again, I couldn’t believe that I had just eaten something that would be so difficult to find back home.

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Taking into consideration the fact that I was dreading what I was going to eat in Rome, I still can’t believe that I managed to taste gluten free pasta, pizza and even dairy free ice cream on my travels round the city. The one thing that really impressed me and I think British restaurants catering for gluten free should introduce, is the flags on meals. They were such a simple idea but filled me with confidence to know that it hadn’t been mixed up with a normal meal that could make me very ill.

The fact that I could go into a little corner shop and find gluten free products for a snack was a bonus and something which I have never experienced in England as only supermarkets and health shops seem to cater for it. The Italians, whose national diet is obviously packed with wheat ingredients, have a huge call for gluten free and honestly, since coming back to England, I realise that we are actually quite far behind in catering for people with dietary restrictions – a fact that was confirmed to me on my first meal out since coming home when I was presented with a meal drowning in soy sauce.

It was very rare even when stopping off for a quick bite to eat that I came across a café that couldn’t cater for me in some way. One little café in a side street not far from the Colloseum had a selection of vegetables, potatoes fried in olive oil and gluten free biscuits that I could eat even though it was primarily a sandwich shop, and I believe it is things like this that England is missing out on.

Quite frankly when I planned to do a blog on gluten free eating in Rome, I thought I would be writing about how difficult it is to eat in the land of pizza and pasta, but upon my return, I now think I will struggle with the lack of care and consideration put into gluten free catering in England. I think we still have a long way to go before coeliac’s and anyone with food intolerances can eat out safely and enjoy their experience without having that nagging feeling that they may be ill afterwards.

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