Molten mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and yeast are the aromas that punctuate summer in Rome.
On a recent day, 7-year-old Filippo Virgo has a hankering for pizza — a classic of the Eternal City.
The problem is that Filippo has celiac disease. This means he gets sick from eating gluten — a protein found in wheat and other grains. So, pizza is usually out of bounds. And, for a second-grader, that’s a travesty.
Filippo’s family heads inside Il Tulipano Nero, a classic Italian restaurant — right down to the checkered tablecloth.
The menu reads like a gluten minefield: linguine, penne, macaroni. But just when we fear Filippo is doomed to dine on pea soup, dinner is saved. The waiter comes by to tell him the food is gluten-free.
There’s a great deal of public awareness in Italy about celiac disease. All Italian children are tested for it by the age of six. That’s how Filippo learned he had the disease.
If they test positive, the government offers considerable benefits into adulthood. Celiac patients receive extra time off work to prepare gluten-free food. They also get vouchers to buy it, up to 140 euros per month.
Dr. Marco Silano, who chairs the scientific board of the Italian Celiac Association, explains why gluten is so central to Italian cooking.
“In fact, gluten is like a dietary glue that makes pasta very good because gluten has the properties to make bread good to catch — in Italy we say to catch — the sauce in the plate, or pasta to have the sauce,” he says.
It’s not that there’s a greater prevalence of celiac disease — one percent of Italians have it, on par with the rest of the world. Rather, it’s that gluten is everywhere you look. And in a country where the dinner table is at the center of social life, not being able to enjoy gluten is like having a beach allergy in Hawaii.
“Maybe this is the reason the gluten-free market and the gluten-free products in Italy are so large,” Silano says. “There is no city or town where there aren’t gluten-free restaurants.”
Il Tulipano Nero is one of nearly 4,000 gluten-free restaurants in Italy that the Italian Celiac Association has recognized.
Filippo’s dad, Paul Virgo, says this means his son can eat whatever everyone else is eating and doesn’t feel left out.
“I think that the fact that people are very food-aware does make your life a bit easier,” Virgo says. “You wouldn’t expect the land of pasta and pizza to be so welcoming, but it is, actually. In many ways, it’s a good place to be.”