As we all know, there's a growing number of people who are now following gluten free diets by choice. It's a double-edged sword. It has made restauranteurs more interested in offering gluten free options on their menus, but unfortunately, this is often driven by profit motives.
Too many times, restaurants aren't properly trained (by organizations such as the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness or the Gluten Intolerance Group) in safe preparation protocol, and diners who must follow gluten free diets for medical reasons (Celiac or gluten sensitivity) can become ill.
Italian restaurants can be among the trickiest types of restaurants to navigate, since there are so many wheat flour-based items on the menu...like pizza and pasta. If there is flour flying in the air from the pizza making, that poses another risk.
As with dining out in general, everyone needs to personally assess Italian restaurant options and determine their own level of comfort before choosing a specific restaurant.
But here are some general questions to ask, preferably before even walking in the door:
- Visit the restaurant's website. Is there a specific GLUTEN FREE MENU? While this doesn't mean you can let your guard down, it's usually a good sign the restaurant has devoted time to researching and developing gluten free choices.
- Ask what training the restaurant has gone through. Are they aware of the importance of keeping gluten free orders free of cross contamination?
- If they offer gluten free pasta, do they boil it in a separate, clean pot? You'd be shocked at how many restaurants list gluten free pasta as an option but boil it in the same pot of water they keep boiling on the stove for their regular pasta!
- Do they use a clean, separate colander and utensils for draining and serving the pasta?
- Are the sauces gluten free?
- If gluten free pizza is made in house, is it made in a separate area, apart from wheat flour and the potential of cross contamination? Are designated pizza pans used for the gluten free pizza?
- If gluten free pizza crusts come pre-made from somewhere else, are they kept apart from the regular pizza making station, and are gloves changed prior to preparing the gluten free pizza?
- Are separate, fresh, non-contaminated sauce, cheese, and toppings used for the gluten free pizzas? Is a clean ladle used for spreading the sauce? Some restaurants (and even many gluten free diners) don't seem concerned about this, but using the same ladle that's been used to spread pizza sauce on a "regular" pizza can contaminate a gluten free pizza. The most careful restaurants reserve a separate set of toppings, sauce, and cheese for their gluten free pizzas -- and use a separate ladle.
- Is a separate, clean pizza cutter used to cut their gluten free pizza?
- Don't assume chicken, fish, steak, or veal entrees are always "safe." You need to ask about what is in the sauces or marinades. Flour can often be used for thickening, and pre-packaged broths used as a base can contain gluten. Flour can also be used to "dust" the meat before sauteeing, so they will either need to use a gluten free flour for dusting or skip this step altogether.
- When ordering a salad, be sure it is served WITHOUT croutons.
- Meatballs typically have bread crumbs in them. Sausage is not necessarily always gluten free either.
- If gluten free bread is served, check with the manager to make sure it isn't cut on the same cutting board that they use to cut their regular bread.
- If ordering an antipasti platter, have the chef verify that any cured meats are gluten free.
- Ask about the gluten free status of salad dressings. If in doubt, request olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
With that said, I'm happy to report that there are so many wonderful Italian restaurants -- both independent and chains -- that are very vigilant in taking care of their gluten free guests, even if they are not entirely dedicated gluten free restaurants. If you have a particular Italian restaurant you'd like to recommend, please share it in the Comment section below.
And stay tuned for our next installment in our Gluten Free at Restaurants blog series, which will cover Indian restaurants, one of my personal favorites (and typically very gluten-free friendly!).