Gluten Free Italy

Back in the very beginning of February, J called me from work one morning and asked how I’d feel about possibly going to Italy in a couple of weeks. An unexpected opportunity came up for someone from J’s office to help out at Aviano Air Base in Italy, about an hour north of Venice. If J volunteered to go, all we would have to for me to join him would be to buy my ticket. My answer: “Um, yes?”

So, in mid-February we set off from Adana to Venice with no preconceptions, hoping to simply get as much as we could out of this little unexpected trip. With J busy with work for the first few days, I was thinking that I would keep myself entertained by bopping around the base and seeing what I could see of the local area during the day. Just the prospect of a change of scenery, dinners out in the evenings, and the opportunity to explore Venice over the weekend made the whole venture more than worthwhile. J, on the other hand, was beginning to grow a bit apprehensive towards the whole experience. (The job that he was supposed to do was growing increasingly time-consuming and convoluted the more he looked into it.) On the plane ride from Istanbul to Venice, as he shuffled through paperwork, he kept muttering that he only wished we were taking this trip as a “real” vacation.

Well… I still hardly believe what happened next. We landed at the airport, found the woman sent to pick us up, got in her car and set off for the base. In the midst of pointing out some of her favorite local vineyards she got a call on her cell. To my ears, the conversation went something like this: “Hi….On the way back to base from the airport, why?….Oh, really? No way! Wow, I’m surprised–after all this? Ok, then, I guess I’ll let him know….” Then she informed us that J’s project got cancelled. And just like that, we were on vacation! The base hotel room and the rental car they booked for us was now on our dime, but the five full days ahead of us suddenly became ours. We were stunned!

Needless to say, we scrambled a bit to figure out how best to use our time to explore and sight see since we did very little research and made no preset plans for any longer excursions. Because of that, our adventures didn’t end up taking us very far afield on this visit, but we still managed to get quite an enjoyable taste of the area (literally!). We have plenty of pictures to share, and I’ll probably do an entire post on Venice and Carnivale (which just so happened to be gearing into full swing while we were there!), but first I want to take a moment to tell you about the food. I am certainly not a food blogger by any stretch of the imagination, but we definitely felt like food tourists during this trip–thinking long and hard about where we wanted to eat and building up plenty of anticipation for each meal.

As someone who has lived gluten-free for nearly ten years, I’ve heard my share of the buzz about the ease of eating gluten free in Italy. And, for the most part, much of it seemed true. While we didn’t find any pizza during this visit (a celiac’s holy grail, in my opinion), we greatly appreciated the ease with which we could communicate our need for gluten free food and the general sense of awareness and overall understanding that emanated from everyone we spoke with. They efficiently guided us to safe items on the menu or they’d offer to make appropriate modifications to certain dishes. Not once did I need to explain “gluten” or field questions like, “but can you eat potatoes??” My only uncertain moments occurred while eating a pasta dish that was so good I worried that perhaps the chef accidentally gave me the regular wheat pasta instead. (But, we quickly learned that Italian brands of gf pasta are just, somehow, *better* than anything I have bought previously–despite nearly identical ingredients…) In any case, we ate a lot of good food and drank a lot of good wine, but we did have one stand-out experience that gave us a meal that we will likely dream about for years to come. (A meal so good, in fact, that we went back to the same restaurant our last night there.)

Before exploring the nearby town of Sacile on our first full day in Italy, I did a bit of research on tripadvisor to come up with a couple of dinner options. A place called Le Contrade came up first on the list. The reviews were excellent, so we wrote down the address and went on our way. We stumbled upon it on accident while driving around looking for a place to park. And, glancing at the menu posted on the wall outside the entrance, we noticed a second plaque mentioned something about accommodating gluten free diners. Jackpot! We spent the afternoon wandering through Sacile’s cute town center, popping in and out of shops to stay warm. At 6pm, when the restaurants open, we went back. We knew it was inordinately early for dinner by Italian standards, but we were hungry (and excited to see what the meal would be like) and ready to get out of the cold. We walked into the bar area–the first customers there, of course–and we were greeted by the server/bartender. She suggested that we sit in the bar for a drink and that they’d seat us at a table in the next room once the kitchen was prepared for dinner service. We had prosecco while munching on homemade potato chips from a little bowl she set in front of us. When she came back again with a couple of bruschetta we mentioned that we were gluten free. “Oh, ok, I will tell Roberto [the owner]. We take care of it” she said. When Roberto came out to the bar area he had his little daughter with him–waiting for her mom to get home from work, he said. She followed him around for much of the evening, hanging onto his leg as he greeted other customers and took orders.

When the server said that they would take care of us as gluten free diners, she was correct and then some. Upon seating us at our table, she brought out gluten free rolls and crisp bread. Roberto then came to explain the menu to us in detail. All of their pastas they could make with gluten free pasta that they prepare in a separate pot of water. Most of the appetizers and main courses were also inherently safe, and he simply steered us away from the few that were not. And to drink he simply said, “I will suggest something.” And that was that.

Here are a few pictures of what we ate. They definitely don’t do the experience justice, and I felt a bit funny snapping these in such a small and intimate space. But, we wanted to remember this meal.

Our gluten free bread. I know this wasn't something that they made there, but, wherever they got it, it was far superior to nearly all packaged gf breads you can find in the States.

delicious pino grigio

My appetizer: king crab over fennel. It was served on a piece of slate.

J's calamari. "Wow," I think, was really the only word he could manage after tasting this...

My pasta--with octopus and broccolini. After this dish and the grilled octopus from the fish restaurant in Bodrum, I can safely say that this particular sea creature has become a favorite of mine.

J's pasta with beef cooked in red wine. It nearly melted apart.

Grass-fed beef with fennel and potatoes. Only seasoned with salt and pepper, and it was perfect.

Duck. And I can't remember what the side was--I think the duck itself was too distracting.

We split a semifreddo–a layered frozen custard–for dessert. And at the end of our meal we were presented with little glasses of the restaurant’s homemade limoncello.

Why we did not buy a bottle of this stuff somewhere to carry back in our suitcase I do not know. Oh well, I guess we'll just have to go back someday!

Ah, memories! 🙂 We’ve already begun brainstorming ways to replicate some of these dishes at home even though we know that nothing we can make can top that experience. I know that many have said it time and time again, but now I I’ve seen for myself the effortless and yet attentive way that Italians approach food. Just as much as people seemed to value cooking in the home, it seemed as though there was a restaurant and cafe culture all it’s own, characterized by long lunches, post-work glasses of wine, and weekly return visits to a favorite restaurant on a given evening. Sounds good to me!


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