Monday, December 15, 2014

Gluten-free highlights from Milan to Menaggio and onto Manarola

I didn't want the year to go by without recording some of the gluten-free (GF) highlights of our trip to Italy in May and June this year.  There's a high level of awareness about coeliac disease and the GF (senza glutine) diet in Italy and ensuring GF food isn't contaminated during the preparation and cooking process which makes it a great destination for coeliacs like me. Here are my highlights:

Caprese salad
I have to start with caprese salad as I had it for lunch at least three times a week and never got tired of eating it. The tomatoes in Italy seemed sweeter and tastier than in Australia and combined with buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil it was a delicious way to refuel at lunch.

Over the five weeks we were in northern Italy, I became a bit of a connoisseur of the dish and enjoyed the additional flavours and textures when anchovies or prosciutto were added. The entire time we were in Italy I didn't have a bad caprese salad which apparently was designed to resemble the colours of the Italian flag.

While GF products are available in Italian supermarkets, a larger range is sold at selected pharmacies (farmacias). This is what I discovered when I walked into the Menaggio pharmacy on the eastern shore of Lake Como.

Here I stocked up on GF madeleines and brioches, a great snack when we were exploring one of Lake Como's lovely gardens or a sweet accompaniment to a mid-morning cappuccino.

The Menaggio pharmacy was also where I discovered a delicious, non-dry GF bread that Bruce reckoned tasted as good as a normal wheat-containing loaf.  The pharmacist said it was the best one to buy as it didn't need heating or toasting and it made great sandwiches when we were on the run. Unfortunately, I didn't keep the label and spent the rest of the trip trying to find it again.

The Menaggio pharmacy and the one on Piazza San Stefano in Belluno at the base of the Dolomites, also had more than 10 different brands of GF pasta including Le Celizie, which was the most delicious GF pasta I have ever tasted. I wished I'd bought several packets to take back with me to Australia.

Pizzeria Il Discovolo, Manarola
Signs outside this shop advertising 'gluten free food sold here' caught my eye on our first afternoon in Manarola, one of the five little towns in Le Cinque Terre. When I stepped inside Il Discovolo I felt like a child in a toy shop with GF pizzas, focaccia, tortes, cakes and polenta bakes on display.

The owner, Enrico told me his wife Giulia makes the GF baked goods which they started doing three years ago after getting many requests from tourists.  They also stock a wide range of frozen and pre-prepared GF products including ice cream cones, lasagna, biscuits and crackers.

During our week in Manarola, I returned many times especially to buy farinata, the local specialty made with chickpea flour that was delicious topped with pesto sauce.

L'Arcobaleno Trattoria, Volastra
After a morning exploring the steep trails inland from Manarola, we went looking for somewhere to have lunch in the small town of Volastra. After our first choice couldn't cater for me we moved on to L'Arcobaleno Trattoria where Tony, the very friendly owner welcomed us in. When I told him I was celiaca, he hurried into the kitchen and returned holding up GF crackers and several types of GF pasta, like a child at school doing 'show and tell'.  Only in Italy, I thought, could you arrive in a tiny hilltop town and enjoy a hearty meal of bolognese with GF spaghetti, and as we ate Tony told us how his Nonna had moved to Australia but returned to Italy after several years.

GF biscuits on the train
After being pleasantly surprised to receive a complimentary drink on the 1st class train from Belluno to Milan, I was even more impressed when the trolley man gave me a small packet of GF biscuits to go with my drink. Only in Italy, I thought again, would they cater for coeliacs on the train.

Chips and olives with Prosecco
While I wasn't able to eat much of the food served with the evening aperitivo at bars and restaurants, I could always munch on some plain chips and olives and so didn't feel like I completely missed out.

At Bar Brera in Milan the staff went out of their way to provide me with alternatives like fresh cherries and rock melon and a huge bag of plain chips to make up for the food that I couldn't eat.

Ristorante Al Passetto, Cortina
It was raining and cold when we arrived in the ski resort of Cortina, high in the Dolomites. The town seemed deserted and we wondered where we were going to find somewhere to eat. And then we discovered Ristorante Al Passetto, which to my delight had a separate 'senza glutine' menu. There were plenty of options but I decided to have my first Italian GF pizza, which was delicious washed down with a glass of vino bianco.

Emanuele Cafe, Verona
Right on Piazza Bra, the main square in Verona, this restaurant is a perfect place to people watch and enjoy a Prosecco or two. It also caters for coeliacs and was where I had a delicious dish of GF pasta with zucchinis and prawns.

Carlin Carlota Agriturismo
All my GF needs were taken care of at this lovely farm stay near Neive in Italy's Piedmont region.

As the sun set over the rolling hills and grape vines I enjoyed a four course meal including a ragout with GF pasta and many glasses of Italian wine. Bellissimo!

Gelato biscotti at Mag in Milan
While artisan (good quality) gelato is generally GF, staff at gelaterias advise that crumbs from the wheat-containing cones may break off and contaminate the gelato so they can't say it's 100 per cent GF. This was the advice I received at Mag Gelateria in Corso Genova, Milan, but fortunately there was an alternative for me. Gelato biscotti, which the staff assured me was totally GF, was so delicious we returned three times during our week in Milan for an afternoon sweet treat.

Al Fresco Restaurant, Milan
As well as having a delicious GF lunch including GF bread roll at this lovely garden restaurant with Bruce, Trudy, Jenny, Stephen and Chris, the owner gave me some Italian language tuition on the correct way to inform restaurant staff that I had coeliac disease and required a gluten free meal. Grazie mille Senor Al Fresco.

Jenny and Stephen's GF dinners in Milan
Last but not least were the delicious GF meals prepared by Jenny and Stephen during our week-long stay at their apartment in Milan.

Grazie mille Jenny and Stephen and grazie mille to the Associazone Italiana Celiachia (AIC) for all the great GF education and training they do with restaurant staff throughout Italy. Bravo!


  1. Wow Therese! All that food looks and sounds delicious. You must go back and remember to pack some in your luggage. ;-)

    1. Yes I should - especially the Le Celizie pasta and wish we had the lovely gelato biscotti in Australia.

  2. Great memories and what a fantastic resource for other gluten free travelers. Remind me to buy some of that pasta before we head home.

  3. Bruce said it was nice to be reminded of what a fantastic trip we had! That would be great if you could bring a packet or two home as long as it doesn't take up too much room. Enjoy your travels.