A couple weeks ago, I ended up in the hospital with severe anemia and in desperate need of a blood transfusion to lift my iron and hemoglobin levels out of the danger zone.
In classic “mom” form, my mother, who happened to be visiting me the weekend I ended up in the hospital, tried to lighten the mood by asking the doctor, “Since she will have Italian blood in her after the transfusion, does that mean she’ll come out speaking Italian?!” Cue the forced, nervous laughs all around….
Anyway, my doctor was convinced that I had Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune condition where the consumption of gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye – causes an abnormal immune response that damages the small intestine and blocks the absorption of nutrients.
So my doctor told me to begin a gluten-free diet until the results of my blood test either confirmed or disconfirmed their theory. My face immediately drooped at this news. I was thinking, “There is literally no worse place to be diagnosed with Celiac disease than Rome. What will I eat now?”
Contrary to my initial thought, Rome – and really Italy as a whole – is actually a pretty ideal place to begin a gluten-free diet. Like the rest of the world, approximately 1% of Italians have Celiac disease, but Italians have an increased awareness about the condition. For the most part, this greater awareness is due to the fact that gluten is EVERYWHERE you look in a country where dining is a crucial aspect of Italian social life and good taste is a crucial to the experience.
“Well, that’s great,” I thought. “But I know I will be made fun of when I ask for gluten-free options,” as this usually happens to people eating a gluten-free diet in the United States.
Yet again, I was proven wrong! When I ask whether places have plates that are “senza glutine,” the servers respond with genuine concern rather than scoffing or sounding annoyed.
Italy was the first Western nation to recognize Celiac disease as a legitimate, serious condition. The Associazione Italiana Celiachia is Italy’s Celiac association, and it was founded as early as 1979. It works to educate producers and restaurant owners about the severity condition and encourages them to offer gluten-free options.
Additionally, eating gluten-free is not a fad diet in Italy like it is in the United States. That means, that if someone is asking for gluten-free options, they really need.
Ultimately, my blood tests came back negative, showing that I did not have Celiac disease, but I did learn that I am gluten intolerant.
Thus far, some of my favorite restaurants with gluten-free options include Il Viaggio, Restaurante Nini, and Sans de Ble. Where there are not gluten-free pastas or pizzas, I have learned to branch out and experience other, equally scrumptious Italian dishes, such as Roman chicken and saltimboca.