Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Senza glutine: the joys of eating gluten-free in Bologna, Italy

Gluten-free gourmands travelling to Bologna in Italy can expect to come home with quite a few pasta sauce stains. You might see some furrowed brows from friends who are confused about why a gluten-free traveller might be so excited to visit the spiritual home of spaghetti bolognese, but your widened waistline upon returning home should be enough to convince them otherwise.

Because gluten-free eating in Italy rocks.

Fresh gluten-free tortellini at La Panthera Rosa in Bologna. Image © Anita Isalska
This much we know: Italy loves pasta. Italy loves pasta so much it's practically a human right. And that means no one misses out, including those who eat gluten-free.

With children routinely tested for coeliac disease, Italy has good reason to make a fine art out of gluten-free food. So gluten-free pastas are easy to find (in restaurants, supermarkets and health food shops) and naturally gluten-free food abounds, meaning that even where an eatery doesn't have a direct substitute, they'll know exactly what you can eat.

No room for secondi. Seafood and cherry tomato gluten-free pasta at Ristorante Victoria.
© Anita Isalska

Indeed, some of my best foodie finds were naturally gluten-free. There was the pear and pecorino risotto at Il Ducale and the grilled horse steak (don't judge me) with buttered spinach at Gallo d'Oro in nearby Parma. Neither restaurant had a particular flair for gluten-free substitutions, but they knew exactly what was in their dishes. (A whole load of delicious.)

And then there was the ham.

Each grocery window overflows with hams, Modena's famous balsamic vinegar and
only the best virgin olive oils. Image 
© Anita Isalska
Window displays were crowded with enormous legs of the stuff, and restaurants served prosciutto di Parma by the plateful, either au naturel or draped seductively over slices of melon. Ordering an enormous plate of freshly shaved ham to nibble with your wine, with no accompaniment other than (maybe) a few slivers of muskily fragrant parmigiano cheese, was a decadence repeated too often for me to admit.

One of many, many, many plates of Parma ham, washed down with red wine.
© Anita Isalska
Seriously, there's meant to be melon under this one. But I can't see it, because of ALL. THAT. HAM.

There's melon under there. I think. Image © Anita Isalska
Pizza is another Italian classic you needn't do without, although a little more planning is needed to find the gluten-free holy grail. The Wheaty Eater breezily insisted that we'd have to find a pizza before we left Bologna, only to realise it was a bit tougher than finding gluten-free pasta. But there were a couple of options, namely the gluten-free wonderland that is La Panthera Rosa, where gluten-free ravioli, gnocchi and pizzas are all made in house.

Spicy pork and black olives adorn gluten-free pizzas at La Panthera
Rosa in Bologna. Image 
© Anita Isalska

My next gluten-free Italy adventures, later in the year, will be in Naples and Sicily. Will they be as good as Bologna? My stomach is already rumbling to find out.

Four unmissable pit-stops for gluten-free travellers in Bologna

So where do you start? Here are my top four picks for any gluten-free traveller wishing to add a few notches to their belt on a trip to Bologna.

La Panthera Rosa: gluten-free pizza (as well as pastas, fried breads, ravioli and gnocchi) all of exceptional quality in a jovial family-friendly atmosphere. My only regret, after polishing off spinach and ricotta stuffed tortellini and unholy amounts of pizza, was that I was so full I needed to split my creme caramel pudding with Wheaty.

Franco Rossi: this upmarket gem has the knowledgeable sommelier and gourmet menu of your wildest Italian fantasies. But aside from the impeccable service and nostalgic ambiance, what stole my heart was the gluten-free tagliatelle with clams, and a precarious stack of beef and baked parmesan, littered raunchily with rocket leaves. Outstanding.

Trattoria dal Biassanot: maybe it was luck, but when we stumbled on this bustling trattoria we were told that certo (of course) they could provide gluten-free pasta. This was where I tried my first authentic ragu (better known to most palates as bolognese sauce). Accompanied with generous glugs of Sangiovese wine and lip-smackingly salty Parma ham, it was a gut-busting lunch to savour.

Ristorante Victoria: despite the tourist trap vibe, the gluten-free-friendly staff and gigantic portions make this place a worthy lunch pitstop. Waiting staff were careful to signpost me as celiaca (a coeliac) to the chef, knew exactly what to put on my plate, and the restaurant can substitute gluten-free pasta into all of their pasta dishes. The seafood pasta was so enormous that Wheaty looked a little like he might weep from jealousy.

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