Ciao from Italy!
Now I know we've discussed gluten-free traveling, but studying (and living) abroad is a whole other story. In last month's article I wrote about my upcoming study abroad experience, but as I had not yet arrived, I really didn't know what I was getting into - but after a month, I can definitively say that it has been fabulous, mostly.
I say mostly because, to be honest, the trip started off a little on the rocky side: when we initially booked my flight with British Airways, we ordered a gluten free meal for my flight to London (connecting to Rome) and were warned that, despite the cabin crew strike, because gluten free meals are considered to be a medical accommodation (and not a dietary choice in most cases) there would be no issue. Well, paranoid traveller that I am, I called back a week before my flight - just to confirm - and were told that no special meals of any kind would be provided and vegetarian options were extremely limited. We were advised to pack extra food and not expect anything from the in-flight service. Excellent, right?
So I packed a few sandwiches (using Udi's amazing bread) for the three flights and accompanying layovers - really, no big deal. I get on the plane, get all settled in, doze off for a bit and wake up just in time for the beverage cart. Well, the flight attendant first asked if I would like anything to drink, and then immediately double-checked his seating chart and asked if my name being taken down for a gluten free meal was correct. I was somewhat surprised but confirmed that yes, I had originally ordered a gluten free meal. He apologized profusely that they did not have any on board, but brought me the business and first class menus, consulted food labels and - between the Celiac disease and a shellfish allergy - found me a three course meal, even going so far as to convince one of the other passengers to change their selection so that I could have the last lentil salad - what a guy! So, although they were unable to quickly or easily accommodate my gluten intolerance, the flight crew really moved heaven and earth to try and put something together.
Upon arriving in Italy, I took the train into Trastevere and caught a cab to the University of Washington Rome Center. I knew everyone was at the group dinner, which had started at 7:30, but it was now coming up on 9 and I figured I would just get my keys and go back to the apartment, eat my remaining sandwich and go to bed. Our program coordinator would have none of that and dragged me out to the restaurant - half-way through dinner. I'll be honest, I was feeling quite dismayed at this point - here I am, waltzing into our group dinner at a nice restaurant, very late, and then trying to negotiate with the chef (vis-a-vis my professors) about my special dietary
needs. But it was fine - I came in, I sat down, and was told that while everyone else had just finished their primo (first course, usually a pasta dish) I had the choice of either gluten-free pasta dish or a local speciality, risotto with radicchio. Now, in the spirit of wanting to taste real Italian food, I chose the risotto - but I was so pleasantly surprised, I can't even express my delight. The second course (a meat dish), was veal pizzaiola, another Roman speciality, and guaranteed gluten-free by the chef -- using chickpea flour to coat the meat instead of normal flour. Finally, dessert - the options were limited: tiramisu or a traditional Roman apple cake - neither of which were viable options. So while everyone was oohing and aahing over their cakes, I'll be frank, I was starting to sulk a little bit - the wonderful dinner and accommodating chef got my hopes up and I was feeling a little neglected. All of a sudden, our waiter appears at my elbow and asks, "Do you like pears?" a bit startled, I hesitantly told him that yes, I do like pears and he quickly disappeared. A few minutes later, he reappeared from the kitchen with a deep bowl containing a beautiful pear, poached in red wine with cinnamon, cloves and star anise. My heart melted - it was perfectly delicious.
Finding gluten free options in more touristy locations may be tricky - you can always find a salad or order a more expensive second course dish, and almost everyone understands what Celiac and gluten intolerance are, but to find a gluten free pizzeria, it takes a little bit more work. Our apartment is actually in Trastevere, a small neighborhood just across the river from the ancient center, nestled at the foot of one of the seven Roman hills, the Giancolo. In addition to the vibrant and fresh farmer's market next door every morning, there is apparently a wonderful Celiac kitchen on the opposite side of our building - Il Tulipano Nero, or the Black Tulip. I just made this discovery last week and have not yet had a chance to try it, but their website and reviews boast wonderful food, a homey atmosphere and gluten free ravioli, pizza and even tiramisu. I'll let you know how it goes!
Cooking gluten free is actually fairly easy, most grocery stores (and definitely the supermarkets) all have a gluten free section of varying sizes, including rice cakes, cereals, bake-at-home croissants, cookies, crackers, pasta and pizza shells. I have so far been quite impressed with the selection, but if all else fails, most pharmacies carry gluten free products (although selection varies based on the size of the location) because in Italy, if you are Celiac, the government subsidizes speciality food - how amazing is that?
So a month in, and everything is wonderful. Only six more weeks to go, then it is home in time for graduation!
If you have any questions, comments or ideas of your own - let me know! Feel free to contact me at this link.
- Kelsey Ganes, University of Washington student