Secrets of Gluten Free Italian Food

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Who doesn’t love Italian food?  For most Americans, the words “Italian food” automatically bring pizza and pasta to mind. 

Unfortunately, with gluten allergic or sensitive friends, the options are more limited. 

There are gluten free pizza and pasta choices, but in my opinion, traditional food is tastier when it is made without extensive modifications to the ingredients.  There are plenty of other options for gluten free Italian food, so nobody needs to go hungry.

With the increase in gluten free consumers, it has also become easier to find gluten free cookbooks online, in the grocery store, or at regular bookstores. 

Not Just Tomatoes

After the New World was discovered in the late fifteenth century, travelers brought many new foods back to Italy.  Many people forget that tomatoes were only introduced to Europe at this point, despite how ubiquitous tomato sauces are to Italian cooking. 

Introducing Corn

Another food brought back to Italy at this point was corn.  Maize, as it was known, was very popular in Italy because growing it yielded greater crops than the traditional wheat harvest.  Polenta, an easily prepared, inexpensive corn meal mush, quickly spread throughout Italy.   

Northern Italians prepared large pots of polenta, poured it into pans and given time to chill.  When cold, the firm polenta blocks were sliced and served alongside other dishes in place of bread. 

Central Italians served the polenta as a hot, soft grain.  The cereal is served heaped generously on a large platter and topped with hearty meat and vegetable sauces. 

Families would sit around the platter and eat from the communal dish.  Sliced, chilled polenta is also served grilled, fried or layered with other ingredients in a casserole dish and baked. 

With the exception of a few cases where the cornmeal is mixed with broth containing gluten or the grain supplemented with wheat, polenta is always gluten free.   


Italians eat fewer pounds of rice per person than many other countries do, but it is still a very popular grain.  Italian farmers have developed several prized cultivars of rice for making risotto, a beloved local dish. 

In risotto, short grained rice is gently simmered on the stove while stirring constantly as liquid is gradually added through the cooking process.  The grains maintain a somewhat firm interior while releasing starch into the liquid, making a creamy sauce without requiring dairy.  Risotto can be flavored with grated cheese mixed in at the end, but it also makes an excellent vegan dish without it.

However, rice isn’t only used to make risotto. 

Cooked rice is made into fist-sized balls after filling with meat, vegetables and cheese and then deep fried.  Arancini, or little oranges, are known by that name because the tomato pieces in the filling lend an orange color to the rice.  Suppli al telefono, or telephone wires, are named that because the mozzarella in the filling stretches out to long strings that resemble phone cords when being eaten. 

Sometimes fried rice balls are rolled in breadcrumbs before frying, so be sure to check, but this is the only commonly used glutenous ingredient. 


Another New World food that became popular in Italy was the humble potato.  It was discovered that thinly sliced potatoes could substitute for cheese in many dishes.  Potato pizza, especially when made with roasted garlic, sliced red onions and rosemary, is sublime. 

They are also cooked and used for gnocchi, a humble dumpling served with pasta sauces throughout Italy.  Most gnocchi recipes call for flour as a binder, but there are many gluten free gnocchi variations on the Internet.  They are an easily made, filling meal.

Italian Desserts

Many Italian desserts are traditionally gluten free.  Many cookies are made with an almond paste and egg white base including ricciarelli.  Polenta flour is made into delicious spongy gluten free cakes flavored with chocolate or oranges.  Cold rice is eaten for dessert, flavored with honey and ginger before tossing with nuts and dried fruit.

Traditional Italian cheesecake uses a crust with gluten, but it can easily be switched to a nut or gluten free cookie crumb crust.  Gelato, Italy’s dense sweet ice cream, is generally gluten free unless it has ingredients folded into the cream base.

On first glance, it may seem difficult to find gluten free Italian foods, but with a little bit of homework, you will find that there are many delicious traditional foods to eat. 

Buon appetito!

Article contributed by Sandra Mort

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