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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.