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From Positano to Rome: One Couple's Quest for a Gluten-Free Holiday in Italy (Part Three)
Jill Schaefer is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco. She has specialized in health and wellness communications for more than eight years.View all articles by Jill Schaefer
Celiac.com 11/19/2008 - Day Four: After a ride on a local public bus, which hugged the narrow road's teetering edge and rounded hairpin curves with an alarming sense of speed, we felt grateful for the solid earth beneath our feet in Positano. Our first order of business was to check into the Hotel Villa Rosa and find a nearby trattoria to fill our grumbling stomachs! One of the staff, Stefania, recommended Caffè Positano on the Fornillo side of the town and arranged for a courtesy taxi to deposit us at its doorstep. Without a doubt, its chief allure was the alfresco terrace facing the sea. Situated across the road from the main restaurant and kitchen, the terrace held a dozen or so umbrella-topped tables and beckoned foreigners with unforgettable views.
Jill: We decided to share an enormous plate of salty prosciutto and cold sweet melon as an appetizer. Jeff ordered pesce spada griglia (grilled swordfish) and I chose petto di pollo aceto (grilled chicken with a balsamic vinaigrette, parmesan and arugula). We nibbled at each other's dishes and savored every bite of that culinary welcoming, so much so that we'd find ourselves back for more during our stay. Days later, upon seeing zuppa di verdura (minestrone soup) on the menu, Jeff asked how it was prepared. Our server confirmed it did not contain any noodles/macaroni or gluten, and Jeff was pleased to have his fill of the strictly vegetable-based soup, which we learned is how minestrone is typically prepared in the region. Experimental cook that he is, Jeff was eager already to replicate the recipe when we returned home to San Francisco.
Jeff: The Villa Rosa provided an ample gluten-free breakfast. Each morning my tray included a gluten-free chocolate croissant and gluten-free toast with butter and jam, along with our usual assortment of coffee, tea and yogurt. After we finished a late breakfast, lounging at the beach was one of our favorite things to do. Like many beach areas, lunch fare leaned toward sandwiches, pizzas and the like. The few restaurants tended to be overpriced, but we found a reliable alternative in the salumeria, the Italian version of the delicatessen which means "cured meat shop." It had a variety of cheeses, meats and salads priced by the kilo. In addition to fresh pasta and pasta salads, the place usually had salads that were pasta-free and gluten-free.
Also, once I discovered that French fries were readily accessible (yes, in Italy) and the minestrone was, in my experience, always gluten-free, I knew I had a reliable fallback. This reinforced my confidence and led us to make an exception of avoiding sit-down lunches near the beach. We tried La Cambusa, where the waiter called us by our city of origin: Mr. and Mrs. San Francisco. I had my staple fallback meal, and Jill snacked on a tasty ham and cheese omelet that she washed down with a glass of prosecco.
Jill: While most of our experiences were positive, we had a few missteps along the way. During our first evening at a beach snack shop, Jeff ordered saltimbocca, a dish generally prepared with rolled veal, prosciutto or ham and cooked in a wine and butter sauce. However, what he ended up with was a sandwich version, pressed between thick slabs of bread, that I stuck in our fridge for my lunch the following day. Another time for dinner, we visited Donna Rosa, a family-run trattoria perched high in the hills of nearby Montepertuso, where the locals know to go to eat well and on the cheap. For an appetizer we chose scallops which, to our consternation, were lightly dusted with a bread-crumb gratin that wasn't described on the menu. These surprises could have been averted, though, if we hadn't let down our guard and relied too heavily on the menu. Ultimately, these experiences nudged us to remember to ask questions upfront and not get too comfortable.
Day Nine: When we arrived in the more isolated fishing village of Praiano, a veritable country cousin to cosmopolite Positano, Jeff plopped down in the pastel-hued restaurant of the Hotel Margherita mere minutes after dropping his bags. He was famished and awaited a sumptuous plate of spaghetti posillipo, made with the hotel's gluten-free spaghetti and mushrooms. In fact, Jeff was so enamored with the heaping dish of gluten-free goodness that he borrowed my digital camera to snap a photo and in a flurry of excitement accidentally erased all of our other pictures! Well, at least we've got the memories...
The Hotel Margherita proprietor Suela and her husband Andrea were also attentive to Jeff's breakfast needs. In addition to the standard buffet that had a generous gluten-free assortment of eggs, deli meat, cheeses, yogurt, coffee and tea, they purchased extras for Jeff, including a sweet, gluten-free lemon muffin and gluten-free toast.
Jeff: On the Vettica side of Praiano, the Trattoria San Gennaro was a brisk fifteen-minute walk from the hotel and sat above the main piazza and church. The view from the terrace was both panoramic and quaint, with the Mediterranean offsetting glittering Positano at night and the piazza coming alive with families sitting about while their children played soccer. The place had been recommended by a kind gentleman named Nicola who works at the Villa Rosa in Positano and lives in Praiano. The restaurant served the best bowl of gluten-free minestrone yet! It was so big I have described it as a “tankard” of soup, loaded with fresh vegetables. Though, you do need to ask the kitchen to hold off on the freshly toasted bread garnish. I’ve rarely been so completely well- fed as when I ordered the fries, minestrone and local fish specialty for dinner on our first night. We lingered well into the night, sipping the local wine and taking in the smell of the sea.
Day Twelve: Perched on the cliffs, Ravello is often heralded for its gardens, Villa Rufulo and Villa Cimbrone, and has played host to departing Crusaders, famous authors and numerous other visitors throughout history. The town's stone walls, quaint walkways and tight, cobblestone streets exude the charm of antiquity. Gluten-free dining proved to be equally simple here. We arrived at the Hotel Graal early afternoon and were starving after two long cramped bus rides from Praiano. We headed to the restaurant, where the maître d' guided us to a shaded table on the terrace. Soon we lunched on gluten-free mushroom penne pasta and salad and took in stunning views of the ocean and the nearby seaside village of Minori.
Jill: Perusing our guidebook, we found a trattoria tucked away beyond the main piazza called Cumpa' Cosimo and decided to give it a try for dinner. Thankfully we'd made a reservation, as the medieval-inspired place that was dotted with pictures of celebrities and run by Italian nonna (grandmother) Netta Bottone filled up fast. Everything on the menu looked enticing. The roasted rabbit caught Jeff's eye, along with more minestrone soup. He couldn't seem to get enough of the stuff! Craving comfort food, I bypassed the local specialties for a four-cheese pizza and glass of beer. After trying a bit of Jeff's entrée, though, I had a serious case of rabbit envy! We were pushing our last-bite limits when Netta paraded over to our table with a complimentary dessert, something like a cross between cheesecake and tiramisù, which Jeff picked at in order to avoid the crust (Celiac.com does not recommend doing this), and I couldn't resist polishing off. When Jeff mentioned that he was a writer as we paid our tab, Netta darted back to the kitchen and returned with a plate of figs and grapes. From her garden, she said, and insisted we put them in our pockets for later.
Day Fourteen: Rome may be the Eternal City, but we had all of a day and a half there to explore, with the half starting after our nine-hour transit by private car, Amtrak train and then a female Formula One taxi driver at Termini Station. Since the next day was Sunday and we had no desire to fight the faithful who would attend mass, we opted for a quick visit to St. Peter's and from there trotted over to the Trastevere district for dinner. The Trastevere, a bohemian counterpart to New York's East Village, is one of my favorite places and it won over Jill, who hadn't quite been captured by the Roman magic.
Even in August when the area was thick with tourists, street vendors and buskers, it seemed like a breath of fresh air in a city that can be every bit as overbearing as New York or London. We eyeballed a few menus and sniffed out a crowded place that seemed to move food at a good clip. It was elbow-to-elbow seating at our cramped alleyway table, with throngs of tourists shuffling past, but soon we dined under a blue Roman sky at dusk. We enjoyed a flavorful gluten-free meal of fresh salads, veal marsala, mushroom risotto and handmade local sausages. Despite being stuffed already, we couldn't resist some stracciatella (chocolate chip) and nocciola (hazelnut) gelato near the Piazza Santa Maria, where a polished quartet of young classical musicians serenaded the crowd.
In general, we noticed an abundance of gluten-free salads, soups, roasted meats and risottos in Rome and in all four towns we passed through along the Amalfi Coast. We found reliable delis and easy access to fresh fruit. When we asked, places that did not have gluten-free pasta showed a willingness to prepare any that you provided. So, with a quick trip to the local pharmacy for some gluten-free pasta, you could dine with confidence! Contrary to our fears before the trip, eating gluten-free while traveling in Italy proved easy to do. With a bit of planning, a call to the airline to line up a gluten-free meal, an Italian/English explanation of your dietary needs and the standard caution nearly all people with gluten intolerance bring to eating out, anyone can look forward to an enjoyable, gluten-free holiday in Italy.
Co-written by Jefferson Adams
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