In the Kitchen With Elizabeth: Living in Italy with Food Allergies
I recently had the opportunity to spend the day cooking and interviewing my good friend Elizabeth. She will be part of an on going series of posts where I go and cook in the kitchen with locals here in Tuscany. Although Elizabeth isn’t Italian, she is unique in that she has been learning to cook traditional Italian food while living here with several food allergies and intolerances. She has celiac disease, an egg and soy allergy, cannot tolerate dairy casein (found in cow milk dairy), and is a vegetarian (but will occasionally eat fish). I met Elizabeth when I was pregnant with Francesco and she was pregnant with her daughter Isabella; they were born 6 days apart from one another. We connected so easily because we both share a love for organic and local whole foods. She is an incredible artist and avid gardener; Elizabeth always has the most wonderful home grown vegetables in her kitchen. Please check out her art portfolio site because the artwork she has done is pretty amazing. I will also add that she is a fabulous cook and anyone who goes to dinner at her house would never know her food is made without gluten, soy, eggs, or cow milk dairy. Do I have talented friends or what? I feel so fortunate to be able to share one of her special allergy friendly recipes with you: Salmon Carbonara (at the bottom of the post). It was adapted for her husband from the traditional Italian carbonara which is made with pancetta and raw eggs.
Elizabeth has a lot of insite and advice for people visiting Italy who have food allergies and intolerances. She has been tremendous help for me since my son was recently diagnosed with gluten sensitivity.
Where are you from and how did you end up in Florence?
I am originally from Chicago but when I was 10 my family moved to Michigan and I was there until I turned 21. The story of how I ended up in Florence is sort of long and a bit complicated so here goes…
My experience with Italy all started when I saw the film “Italian For Beginners.” I was about 19 years old and a hopeless romantic. I quickly signed up for an Italian class at my local community college and just as quickly realized I was going to fail. I ended up not failing, but came really close to it. The kindness of my little Italian teacher, who was also a hopeless romantic, graced me with a passing D. You would have thought my love affair with Italia would have ended there with that damaging grade point average mark. I then moved to Arkansas and transferred to Arkansas State University so I could be near my parents as well as escape the ridiculously high car insurance in Detroit. I found out my school was offering a month long study abroad program in Florence Italy so I signed up and went. I had the time of my life, but a month wasn’t enough for me! A year and a half later I was back for a semester at an art school and then stayed four more months to travel and work on organic farms around the country.
During that semester I met my husband, Michelangelo, at a bar and we remained friends during my stay in Italy and kept in touch occasionally through email. I returned to Florence the following summer to study Italian. That is when something sparked between Michelangelo and I. Instead of applying for a Fulbright scholarship to study Michelangelo’s (the actual Renaissance artist) stone carving in Carrara, I finished my degree and then moved to Florence to marry my very own Michelangelo. We have now been married for almost 6 years; our daughter Isabella is 18 months old and she will have a little brother or sister coming this fall!
When did you start to become interested in diet and real food?
I became interested in food and where it came from when I was 14. I decided one day in science class that I loved animals and did not want to eat them any longer. I could not kill one with my own hands so why should I eat them. Vegetarianism doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy but it started my quest to learn about food and what I was putting in my body. I started out by searching for meat alternatives at health food stores and slowly began checking out other products while I was at it. My go to snack for years was pita and hummus. International foods were really in so trying new ethnic vegan or vegetarian friendly restaurants was fun, but I still stopped at the occasional fast food restaurant for soda and fries. I got more serious about eating well when I turned 18: I decided to cut out McDonald’s burgers minus meat to be replaced with the side of French fries. I got a job working at Whole Foods and that is when I started to truly learn about organic and where our food really comes from.
How did you learn about your food allergies and intolerances?
It was my first trip to Italy back in 2004 that brought out all of the symptoms of the damage I had been doing to my body for years. Celiac disease is strange like that, you can seem fine one day and then out of the blue you can get really sick. Like any good vegetarian I drank soy milk in my coffee and my cereal, ate soy meat alternatives and edamame, and loved to eat Japanese food with tofu and soy sauce. I ate eggs for extra protein, seitan for that gluteny meat-like texture, and I still ate cheese because well, it’s cheese!
In Florence I went crazy eating all of the pizza and pasta I could get my hands on. But somewhere toward the middle of my trip I started to notice some very strange acne forming on my face. It quickly became explosive and very red. My skin had always been quite clear so I thought I must be reacting to something in the air or the water. I then noticed that my clothes were getting tight and I started to feel tired walking up stairs. My once slim and athletic body was feeling plump and lazy. When I returned home I realized that I had gained 10 pounds and my symptoms were getting worse. I knew something was wrong but the doctor would only prescribe birth control and antidepressants. I refused to settle with that because I knew that there was something else at play here. One doesn’t just go from slim, clear skin and happy to chubby, depressed, and lethargic for no reason. I asked him if I could be celiac and his response was, “no” defiantly not. I gained another 10 pounds in the next few months. I continued to go to the doctor and search online for possibilities until one day I found a compounding pharmacist who specialized in women’s hormones. He tried to help me regulate my cycle with hormone creams and different herbs and vitamins, but while I was in Italy the second time in 2006 I didn’t cycle for the whole eight months I was there! Since he couldn’t help me he told me to go to an allergist when I got back to the states. The allergist changed my life. Within minutes of our visit she was convinced that I was celiac especially after learning that my aunt, cousin, and sister were all celiac and this disease is genetic. I went gluten free the next day and within the next few months I found out I was also intolerant to eggs and cow dairy. As soon as I stopped eating all those foods the bloating and gas I had been experiencing for years completely stopped. It was amazing. Symptoms I had thought were just a normal part of life were completely gone. My acne slowly started to dissipate and I began to lose weight and get my energy back too. It is truly remarkable how much the foods we eat affect us.
What was the hardest part about adjusting to this new way of eating? How do you manage living in Italy without bread and pizza?
The hardest part of changing my diet was the social aspect. I was no longer able able to eat out with ease and I had to bring my own food or gluten free beer to parties. This made me feel like a weirdo. It is amazing, but people don’t believe that celiac disease or gluten intolerance is really a thing. They doubt and get mad at you and that really hurts especially coming from people who knew how much I suffered before understanding the cause.
To be perfectly honest, it is very manageable and easy to live here without eating gluten and eggs. I can eat any dairy that is not from a cow; Tuscany and most parts of Italy produce a lot of sheep, goat, and buffalo cheeses. Italy is surprisingly a gluten free haven. All Italians know what it means to be celiac and they take this very seriously. “You can’t eat pasta, pizza, and bread? We will find a way.” They have some really great gluten free bread and pasta products here too. Many pizzerias offer gluten free pizza. More and more chefs are finding it essential to study gluten free cuisine. I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times in restaurants when they offered all courses gluten free including breaded and fried items like the frittura mista di mare (fried fish and vegetables).
Do you have any favorite gluten free restaurants, cafes, or gelato shops in Florence?
Yes! One of my favorite places in Florence to eat is Ciro&Sons near the San Lorenzo market. They make a great gluten free wood burning oven pizza and have a whole array of gf options on the menu. Some of the Pizzaman chain restaurants make gf pizzas and have gf beer. For a more upscale dinner I like Oliviero. They made me a special gf dessert by request for my birthday. Most places with gluten free options will have gluten free desserts but they usually have cow dairy and eggs. Oliviero’s chef made me tempura’d fruit with a dark chocolate sauce. So amazing!
My favorite gelateria is Gelateria Porta Romana (located directly in Porta Romana square). They make a beautiful dark chocolate gelato and a mint dark chocolate that does not have dairy or eggs. They are incredibly refreshing paired together on one of their gluten free cones in the summer time. All of their fruit flavors are dairy and refined sugar free too.
Gelateria Santa Trinita also has an amazing dark chocolate as well as fruit flavors and many times you will find chocolate truffles there as well. They do not have gf cones however.
Festival Di Gelato is the last one that I frequent because of its convenient location in the middle of town, gluten free cones, and two flavors made with rice milk: cappuccino and hazelnut.
And my new favorite café/sandwich shop is Panino Vegano. Everything is gluten free and organic plus they offer some raw food options as well. It doesn’t get much better than that!
What advice to you have for anyone traveling to Italy with Celiac disease or Gluten Intolerance?
You should be very excited because you are in for a real treat! You can eat in almost any restaurant you find. Just tell the waiter “senza glutine”(sen-za gloo-tee-ne) and he will give you all your options. Usually half of the starters, the risottos in the first dishes, and all of the second dishes and sides will be choices for you. The same goes for gelaterias. Sometimes they will have gf cones and if cow dairy isn’t a problem for you, then you can have most flavors. Just be aware if you cannot have eggs, some gelaterias use egg in all of their recipes, like the famous Vivoli and Ponte alla Carraia gelaterias.
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 small/medium size yellow onion (chopped)
- 4 oz smoked salmon diced into cubes (about 3/4 cup)
- 1 cup rice milk (any milk substitute will work)
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
- 3 to 4 tsp arrowroot powder (cornstarch will work too)
- 16 ounces gluten free spaghetti (regular spaghetti if gluten is not a problem for you)
- Heat the oil in a large fry pan and then sauté the onion until soft. Throw in the salmon and cook for another 5 minutes until the salmon is light pink and cooked through (stirring constantly).
- Add the rice milk, salt, and pepper then bring to a slow simmer for another 5 minutes. Slowly add the arrowroot, a teaspoon at a time until your sauce starts to thicken. Once your sauce is ready, turn off heat and let sit until your spaghetti is cooked.
- Prepare the spaghetti according to package. Once the spaghetti is done, strain it and then pour it onto your sauce in the fry pan. Turn heat back on low and stir until the sauce and spaghetti are very well combined, add the grated cheese and stir some more.
- Serve and enjoy!