Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-Free: Traveling with a Special Diet in Italy

Italy is famous among many travelers for its food. Eating your way across Italy is a perfectly acceptable travel strategy by way more people than just yours truly. If you’re a traveler with any dietary restrictions, however, eating out in Italy might seem like a daunting task.

Whether your dietary needs are based on allergies, religious beliefs, or something else entirely, knowing what’s on the plate in front of you is really important. Here are some tips and a whole bunch of resources (that’s the last section, so keep reading) to help you make sure you’re a well-informed diner.

Eating in Italy: Some General Information

Vegetable antipasti || creative commons photo by arvind grover

Vegetable antipasti || creative commons photo by arvind grover

Italians love food. In particular, they love their food. They think they have the best cuisine on earth, and they want you to love what you eat when you’re in their country. This means, at its heart, that most Italian cooks will do whatever they can to make sure you’re happy with your meal – including preparing something special that’s free of whatever you can’t eat. To get to that point, however, can be difficult with a language barrier.

I’ve seen Italian waiters acknowledge someone saying she’s a vegetarian, and yet not thinking adding pork to the soup is in conflict with that. Declaring yourself a vegetarian or vegan isn’t terribly helpful in Italy, where such diets are still fairly rare. It’s better to be specific about what you can’t eat, and the very best way to do that is to talk about digestion.

I know. Funny topic to bring up with a waiter, but it’s true.

Italians, by and large, struggle with the idea of “I don’t eat X,” whatever X is for you. The words make sense to them, but putting it in practice is a little fuzzy. Instead, Italians are obsessed – and that’s not hyperbole – with the concept of digestion. (Watch Italian TV for awhile and you’ll see a number of ads for digestion aids.) So getting the point across in a restaurant isn’t about knowing the language, it’s usually about knowing what phrase to use. “I don’t digest X” works wonders where “I don’t eat X” can fail.

Now, keep in mind that some restaurants in Italy are simply too busy to cater to individual diners (or the chefs are just tired of tourists). It’s important to do your research before your trip to find out what dishes are specialties of each city or region you’re visiting – Italian cuisine varies widely from region to region – so you’ll know if there’s anything on that list you can eat without needing to get into a dialogue with the waiter. Then, you can limit the exchange to a few simple questions about a dish or two you’re considering – is this one without meat/dairy/nuts? – without taking up too much time.

A few helpful phrases and vocabulary words to put all this into action:

  • non posso digerire – (non POSS|oh dee|jeh|REE|reh) – I can’t digest …
  • ho una allergia grave – (oh OO|nah al|lehr|GEE|ah GRAH|veh) – I have a grave allergy …
  • è senza – (eh SEN|zah) – it is without …
  • carne – (KAR|neh) – meat
  • formaggio – (for|MAH|joh) – cheese
  • frutti di mare – (FROO|tee dee MAH|reh) – fish/shellfish
  • glutine – (GLOO|tee|neh) – gluten
  • noci – (NOH|chee) – nuts
  • uova – (WOH|vah) – eggs

Thanks to reader Laurel for contributing the phrase above about having a grave allergy! Are there other food words I should add to this list? Let me know!

Food Allergies in Italy

Farinata, made with chickpea flour || creative commons photo by jenni shortt

Farinata, made with chickpea flour || creative commons photo by jenni shortt

Travelers who choose not to eat meat may not like finding out there’s pork in their soup, but it probably won’t kill them. If you’ve got a food allergy, on the other hand, not knowing what’s on the plate in front of you can actually make dining a scary experience. It doesn’t have to be in Italy, thanks to lots of translation resources and a growing awareness of food allergies among Italians, but some allergies are more complicated to manage than others.

Gluten Allergies

This is the land that gave pizza to the world, and where nearly every restaurant in the country offers a pasta course. Avoiding gluten can be tricky, but it’s absolutely not impossible. Some non-gluten “pasta” course options include polenta and risotto (depending on where you are in the country), and of course you can skip right to the second course and have meat or fish for dinner. Some restaurants now offer gluten-free pasta or pizza dough, though this is hardly standard. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but be prepared with an alternative dish to order just in case.

Dairy Allergies

There’s some evidence that it’s the preservatives that are added to dairy products in the United States and not the dairy products themselves that cause allergic reactions, and some people find they can tolerate dairy products like cheese and gelato in Italy that they can’t eat at home. For those who don’t want to risk that kind of on-the-ground test, rest assured that there are usually quite a few gelato flavors in the case that are dairy-free – they’re called “sorbetti.” Some gelaterie have even started making dairy-free gelato. Also, whereas many restaurants in the U.S. cook with copious (some might say criminal) amounts of butter, the base of most Italian dishes is olive oil.

Nut Allergies

The most common nut allergy I know of is peanuts, a nut that is all but unheard of in Italy. If you have an allergy to nuts in general, you can try the word “noci” (listed above), but also keep in mind that most of the time nuts are described by their individual names rather than by a catch-all word for “nuts.” The word “noci,” in fact, is usually used to describe “walnuts.” So if you’ve got an allergy to all nuts, spend some time with the WordReference online dictionary to look up the words of nuts and jot them down. And remember, a seemingly nut-free thing like pesto is made with pine nuts, so it’s important to ask even if you don’t see nuts.

Fun fact? In Italy, peanut allergies may not be a thing – but allergies to fava beans (which are much more common in Italy) are.

Vegetarian & Vegan Diets in Italy

A vegetarian restaurant in Rome || creative commons photo by Joi Ito

A vegetarian restaurant in Rome || creative commons photo by Joi Ito

As I said earlier, handing an admittedly vegetarian diner a soup made with some pork product isn’t considered a violation of said diner’s diet, since – to many Italians – prosciutto and other pork products aren’t thought of as meat. They’re thought of as flavor. And why would you voluntarily give up flavor?

This is when you need to be more explicit about precisely what you don’t eat digest, making sure the soup isn’t flavored with pancetta or cheese (see the phrases above).

Vegetables are often side dishes in Italy (called “contorni”), rather than included on the same plate as your main course, so you may be able to make a complete meal of side dish veggies and be perfectly content. You may also find plenty of options on the first (pasta) course part of the menu. In both cases, just remember to double-check that veggies haven’t been flavored with meat or dairy (whatever you’re avoiding).

Religious Dietary Restrictions in Italy

Kosher market in Florence || creative commons photo by Fooding Around

Kosher market in Florence || creative commons photo by Fooding Around

Italy is predominantly Catholic, but in the larger cities there are increasing populations of Jews and Muslims (as well as other religious groups), so finding Kosher or Halal restaurants isn’t impossible. If you’re visiting parts of the country that don’t have specifically-labeled Kosher or Halal restaurants, you can follow the advice for vegetarian diners above, inquiring particularly carefully about pork products or dairy.

Resources for Travelers with Special Diets in Italy

Restaurant table in Manarola || creative commons photo by due mele

Restaurant table in Manarola || creative commons photo by due mele

The internet is a wondrous place. This is by no means a comprehensive list of resources anyone with dietary restrictions should be aware of, but it’s a great start. If you know of anything I should include here, please let me know.

  • Eye on Italy Podcast: Episode 38 – We spoke with two long-time expats in Italy (one a vegetarian, one a vegan), and they both offered great suggestions about what dishes to look for and how to communicate your dietary needs to a waiter.
  • Walks of ItalyThis article on special diets in Italy is quite good, with specific dish suggestions for different dietary restrictions.

Resources for Travelers with Food Allergies in Italy

  • Allergy Translation Cards – Cards you carry with you, listing your specific allergies in many languages.
  • Select Wisely Food & Travel Translation Cards – Cards you carry with you, listing your specific allergies (including drug allergies) in many languages.
  • Italian Celiac Association – The English-language version of the Italian site is minimal. If you want to use the Italian version, there’s a clickable map on the main page. Choose the region(s) you’re visiting, which launches a new region-specific site. You may be able to glean some information from those sites, or possibly contact them for additional information. Look for downloadable documents or travel guides you can bring with you. Honestly, the site is a great resource if you speak some Italian (or are handy with Google Translate), but it can be a challenge to navigate otherwise.
  • Gluten-Free in Italy – My pal Jodi has celiac disease, and her article on being gluten-free in Italy is particularly helpful – especially if you’re curious about why Italians are so accommodating with some dietary issues (and especially to gluten issues).

Resources for Vegetarians & Vegans in Italy

  • Viaggia Vegan – This guide is only in Italian, but (as of 2015, when it was first published) includes 130 properties across Italy that are vegan-friendly. Most of the places in the guide are restaurants, but it also includes places that choose “cruelty-free” products for their lodging or shop. The guide is €19.
  • Happy Cow: Vegetarian Restaurants & Health Food Stores in Italy – This list is broken down by region, and can be adjusted to show “veg-friendly” places or just places that are completely vegetarian and vegan.
  • The Beehive Guide to Rome – The lovely folks who run The Beehive (a hotel/hostel and cafe in Rome) have put together a list of their recommendations in their city, with a special focus on vegetarian and vegan restaurants in every neighborhood. Their own cafe offers vegetarian/vegan dinners a few times a week, all made with local, organic ingredients (reservations recommended).
  • NaturaSi – If you’re staying in a place with a kitchen and you’re doing your own grocery shopping, look for this “natural” supermarket chain in Italy. This page has a list of the cities with NaturaSi shops. The site is only in Italian, but the cities are listed in alphabetical order.
  • Visiting Italy as a Vegetarian – Some helpful suggestions for regional vegetarian dishes to order in some of Italy’s major cities, though it doesn’t mention double-checking about whether there’s pork used in the preparation.
  • Vegan Backpacker in Florence – Some specific places to get vegan pizza and gelato in Florence.

Resources for Travelers with Religious Diets in Italy

  • Jewish Italy – This site covers all manner of Jewish places in Italy, from mikvahs to Kosher hotels, but you can select the “Kosher meals” or “restaurants” categories for more specific information on food.
  • Shamash – The Kosher database on this site allows you to search all of Italy or specific cities.
  • Zabihah – This site calls itself the “original and world’s largest guide to Halal restaurants and markets.” Here’s the Italy-specific section, broken down by region.
  • Chowhound: Halal Dining in Italy – This thread on Chowhound is useful for suggestions of specific dishes in Italy that don’t have pork or pork fat in them.

4 responses to “Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-Free: Traveling with a Special Diet in Italy”

  1. Excellent article!

    I would add a useful phrase for those with allergies: “Ho un allergia al rosemarino/alle mele/ai latticini”.

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