For many Celiacs and others following gluten-free diets, dining out on Italian food may be a distant memory. On the surface, your reaction might be, "Anyplace with pasta as a staple food is NOT a place for me!" However, it pays to do a little research to find the growing number of Italian restaurants -- both chains and independent restaurants -- that are now either willing to tailor items on their regular menu to make them gluten-free...or better yet, offering extensive gluten-free menus.
While you'll probably need to avoid the Chicken or Veal Parmesan, almost any Italian restaurant has a handful of things that may qualify as being "naturally" gluten free (i.e. steaks, roasted chicken, grilled fish or seafood). The key is to make sure you question everything before ordering. Here are some examples of the questions to ask to uncover "hidden" gluten in Italian dishes:
- Do the meatballs have breadcrumbs in them?
- Are the steaks or other meats marinated?
- Are the meats dusted with flour before sautéing?
- Is the salad dressing gluten-free?
- Is flour used as a thickener in any of the sauces?
- Is there bouillon or broth in a sauce (they often contain gluten)?
Of course, you'll also need to have a detailed conversation with the manager, or preferably the chef, about exactly how to prepare the food to avoid cross-contamination with gluten that is prevalent in the kitchen.
The next "step up" are restaurants that will tailor Italian favorites to make them gluten-free for you. Examples of this would be restaurants that are willing to do a gluten-free breading -- or breadless version -- of things like Chicken Parmesan or make Veal Piccata that's not dusted in flour. Maggiano's can tailor items on their menu and, like some other Italian restaurants, even stocks gluten-free pasta. (My question for those Italian restaurants that don't offer gluten-free pasta is...WHY NOT?). It's so easy to find a good gluten-free pasta to offer to your guests. And with so many sauces being naturally gluten-free anyway, this gives people a good number of gluten-free choices that are simple for restaurants to prepare, so long as they are sure to boil the pasta in a separate pot of water and avoid other cross-contamination pitfalls.
Ultimately, what Celiacs are looking for, however, is an Italian restaurant that has shown the interest and taken the time to develop a true gluten-free menu, no matter how simple or extensive. Restaurants that come to mind include Biaggi's (based out West and my personal favorite!), Carrabbas, and even family-friendly chain Old Spaghetti Factory. Our family recently dined at Sambuca restaurant in NYC. This independent (non-chain) restaurant on West 72nd Street just off Central Park West had a great gluten-free menu with plenty of pasta and meat, and seafood choices. If you have a favorite local Italian restaurant that serves up delicious and safe gluten-free food, PLEASE let all of us know about it by submitting a quick review to GlutenFreeTravelSite.com.
One more bit of advice: It's always a help to travel with a dining card, like those from Triumph Dining (they are offered for Italian cuisine as well as 10 or more other global cuisines). These can help you succinctly articulate your needs to a server, manager,or chef. And because they're bilingual, they also help cut across language barriers, which are often present with kitchen staff preparing your meal.
One final word to the wise...as I've stated in past Blog entries, VIGILANCE is always necessary, even when eating at a "safe" restaurant with a gluten-free menu where you've dined dozens of times before. There may be someone new in the kitchen who may not be aware of all the intricacies of cross contamination, or a server who doesn't know anything about the gluten-free diet -- or even the g-f menu the restaurant offers. But trust me, it IS worth a bit of research, because when you find good gluten-free Italian food, it is a sublime experience! (Be sure to periodically check our growing list of restaurants with gluten-free menus on our Gluten Free Restaurant Menus page AND also Search Reviews for new ideas of great places to dine both in your area and places you travel).
Happy Gluten-Free Italian Dining, and Happy Holidays!