Jill Schaefer is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco. She has specialized in health and wellness communications for more than eight years.
Celiac.com 08/07/2008 - We'd begun practicing basic Italian⎯buon giorno! We'd practically memorized the Frommer's travel guide. We'd scoured multitudes of online travel sites and finally made all the arrangements for our once-in-a-lifetime romantic getaway to the sun-kissed shores of the Amalfi Coast.
As the date of our departure approached, we grew more excited to spend our first major vacation together, tucked away in cliffside hotels, taking in sweeping views of the Mediterranean from our seaside balconies. We had some lingering doubts, though. Jeff follows a gluten-free diet, and I was concerned about how well he'd be able to eat in Italy, the land of pizza, pasta and bread. I know how difficult it can be to dine out, even in our neighborhood in San Francisco. What could he possibly find that would be gluten-free in Italy? And, with the language barrier, how would we be able to easily communicate his needs?
Jeff: I know a little Italian, but solo un po’ (only a little), as the Italians say. So I, too, was a bit worried. At home, I keep tight control over what I buy, prepare most of my own meals and eat out only at select places that I know are safe. I was worried that consuming every meal at a hotel or restaurant for two weeks straight would present challenges. Like so many people with celiac disease, I've lost more than a few days to gluten contamination. That's the last thing I wanted to happen on such a special trip.
One of the first things we did was to e-mail the hotels several weeks in advance to see what gluten-free options they might offer. We crafted a short inquiry in English, and just in case the staff only spoke Italian, put it through a free online translation service called Babel Fish. We included both versions in our messages. All four hotels responded within a day or two, most in English. Three confirmed gluten-free options in the hotel and/or its restaurant. One pledged a solution upon arrival, suggesting that Jeff could communicate a preference for breakfast, and the hotel would meet his needs.
Jill: I was especially impressed with Casa Astarita, a bed and breakfast along the first leg of our trip in Sorrento. The staff at Casa Astarita noted that we could request food without wheat or barley, recommended a restaurant in the square and pledged to help us during our stay in Sorrento. In addition, the Hotel Margherita in Praiano, a charming seaside town off the beaten path, assured us of gluten-free pasta and biscuits (probably what we would call crackers) in the hotel.
Another step we took about two weeks before our flight was to contact the airline about gluten-free meal options. We wondered if Jeff would be able to eat gluten-free on both legs of the trip⎯from San Francisco to Chicago, and more importantly, the nine-hour haul from Chicago to Rome. Either way, we planned to pack plenty of gluten-free snacks to have on hand as a precautionary measure.
Jill: The American Airlines customer service representative told me the airline did not offer gluten-free meals on the short flight from Chicago to San Francisco, and we'd need to bring our own food. However, on the longer flight from Chicago to Rome, they could accommodate gluten-free needs. The representative confirmed a special meals code for the gluten-free food request (GFML is the code) that was entered into the reservation.
American Airlines also pointed us to its Web site, which lists sample menu options that may vary month to month:
Jeff: It turns out that the Italians are actually at the forefront of celiac disease awareness and treatment. In fact, all Italians are screened for celiac disease before they are six years old. [1,2]
Those with celiac disease receive excellent support, including monthly payments from the government for gluten-free food, as well as more vacation to offset extra time used to shop for and prepare gluten-free food.
Italians are also on the vanguard of the gluten-free food movement. The country's robust celiac association, called the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC), the Italian government and several large Italian companies that make and distribute gluten-free foods have joined together to promote awareness and understanding of celiac disease. This makes for knowledgeable restaurant owners, managers, chefs and waiters. 
Italians are among the most expert crafters of gluten-free pastas and baked goods. Italian companies like Beretta and BioLand make delicious gluten-free rice pasta and a variety of other gluten-free food products, while others produce numerous gluten-free specialty items for import, such as chestnut flour.
AIC has a helpful Web site and convenient 24/7 telephone hotline. Both offer celiac information and support in English and Italian, along with tips on gluten-free food and dining in every region of Italy. 
So, all of the useful information we turned up in our search made us hopeful that our first vacation together just might be a gluten-free gastronomic delight.
Tune in next month to find out how things turned out on the ground. Until then, happy gluten-free travels and, as the Italians say, Mangia bene! Eat well!