Gluten Free in Italy

Gluten free pizza napolitana a Be Bop restaurant, Milan

Pizza, pasta, panettone. Some of the delicious joys of Italy, but not for you. Instead, you’re relegated to the fruit and veg stands, the fish, meat and cheese counters. Not such a bad thing really, but while everyone else relishes mouthfuls of spaghetti carbonara, pizza Napoletana and pistachio cream filled croissants, you hang your head like the kid who didn’t get theirs.

Chin up! There are alternatives for us gluten freers that will bring smiles to our faces and indulgent pleasures to our taste buds, without the thumping headaches and itchy rashes. Here are a few of my personal favourites and a few just to have in the cupboard:

Pasta di mandorla  (Almond  paste  biscuits)Pasta di mandorla

If you want to do as the majority of Italians do, and have a quick coffee at your local bar on the way to work, but you can’t stand the temptation as you watch everyone else dunking sugar dusted brioche into their cappuccinos, then this one’s for you. Pasta di mandorla is a paste made out of ground almonds, egg whites, sugar, almond essence and lemon zest. It’s a classic Sicilian recipe which can be found throughout Italy. The paste is made into soft, chewy biscuits that come in different flavours and shapes.

There’s the simple ‘pizzicotti’Pasta di mandorla biscuits balls that have been ‘pinched’ before being put into the oven, cherry topped rounds, pine nut covered balls and many more. The variety is endless. If your local bar has one type, they’ll no doubt have three or four types. I’m particularly partial to the ones at the Dolce Capriccio Bar and Pasticceria on the corner of Via Bramante and Piazza Lega Lomarda here in Milan. BTW, where you have your morning coffee is called a bar in Italy, not as us anglo folk say, a café.

La farinata di ceci  (Chickpea  flat  bread)La farinata di ceci at Pizzeria dell'Angelo, Milano

Lunchtime. You’re starving. What are your options? A “panino” (a bread role sandwich), a “piadina” (like a soft tortilla sandwich), a slice of “focaccia” (oven baked bread topped with salt and fresh rosemary) or a slice of pizza? In short, none. But wait, there is a quick carby alternative for gluten freers on the go. It’s called “La farinata di ceci”. Made from chickpea flour, water, salt and extra virgin olive oil, the recipe comes from both Tuscany and Liguria and goes by different names depending where you are: “faine” or “faina” in Liguria, “cecina” or “torta di ceci” in Tuscany. While the Tuscans tend to keep it classic, the Ligurians add rosemary or even peas. When I’m at home, I nip across the road to get my farinata at Pizzeria Dell’Angelo on Via Belfiore. You’ll find it in about one out of every three bakeries (usually on display beside the focaccia and pizza) or in some local pizzerias.

Panella made from farinata di ceci.I’ve also found it in the form of Panella, a Sicilian version, which is smaller pieces of the same dough fried. Leave it to the Sicilians to rev it up a notch. Either way, it will keep you full for much longer than a sandwich will, not to mention all that chickpea goodness. The only downside is, it disappears from about mid June to mid September.


Traditional pizzoccheri is not 100% gluten free. Roughly speaking, it’s made with 80% buckwheat flour (buckwheat is a seed, not a grain) and 20% wheat flour, so if you’re super intolerant or celiac, beware, although 100% gluten free pizzoccheri is also sometimes available. This hearty dish hales from the alpine region of Valtellina, and more specifically from the little town of Teglio where it is considered a national heritage and where you will find the Accademia del pizzocchero di Teglio, an entire institution dedicated to keeping the original recipe alive.

Made of tagliatelle like strips of mostly buckwheat pasta, potatoes, savoy cabbage, butter and cheese, it’s Italy’s rich cousin to Ireland’s colcannon, with its layers of textures and flavours. You won’t find it easily outside of Lombardy, although it’s not uncommon in Milanese restaurants and I’ve also seen it served at an aperitivo buffet. But if you’re looking for the real McCoy head north. One restaurant I would highly recommend is Crotto Valtellina about an hour and a half’s drive from the centre of Milan.

Gluten free pizzas

For my liking, not enough pizzerias are serving gluten free pizzas. Take the hugely popular Neapolitan Sorbillo Pizzeria, with branches in Naples, Milan, Rome and one soon to open in New York, yet only the one in Naples offers gluten free pizza. This is a good indication of the general state of affairs. If you’re like me and can tolerate the odd slice now and again, but not really, you’ll succumb, hoping you won’t have to pick up a tube of 1% Hydrocortisone cream the next day. It’s just not good enough! Let’s hope this changes soon.

Be Bop restaurant Milan, gluten free pizza menu

But although we can’t pick and choose, some restaurants do serve gluten free pizzas. I had one in Quinto on the coast of Liguria in August. I thought I was walking into a fish restaurant, but they also had pizza and gluten free at that. In Milan there’s the brilliant Be Bop Pizzeria and Restaurant close to the very trendy Navigli district. I absolutely love this place, with it’s great choice of gluten free pizzas, (see photo above, everything on the menu is gluten free as is the beer and bread basket contents), great atmosphere and friendly and professional service. I’ve also been told that Cook Window do a good selection of gluten free pizzas, but this one I haven’t tried yet, creature of habit that I am.  I’m positive these aren’t the only ones though, it’s just a matter of striking lucky as I did in Quinto or doing a bit of research on the internet.

gluten-free pasta, pasta senza glutine

Gluten free at the supermarket

Getting used to a gluten free diet is challenging, especially mentally. How often have I eaten a sandwich, slice of cake, chocolate biscuit, literally feeling my skin prickle before I even put it in my mouth, and yet I ate it anyway. The mind is like a kid who gets fixated on having to have something, then when they know they can have it, they don’t want it anymore. You have to train it, firmly, but with compassion. This is where supermarket gluten free products can really help. Italian supermarkets like Esselunga and Auchan have an excellent choice of gluten free products including flours, pastas, breads, savory and sweet biscuits and even piadinas – those soft flat breads I mentioned earlier.  The key words to look out for are “senza glutine”. So if you must have a chocolate digestive, have one by Schaer, the German, gluten free brand. They’re just as yummy and equally as naughty. I personally rate Garofalo the best for gluten free pasta. And my favourite “gallette” (crackers) are 100% made out of buckwheat by Fiorentini.

Fiorentini Bio Gallette Grano Saraceno




Translating Danda Santini

Io Donna, Corriere della Sera, Danda Santini

Saturday mornings: one of my weekend pleasures is to go to the local bar and sit down with a cappuccino, an almond biscuit and Danda Santini.

Santini is editor-in-chief of iO Donna, the weekly magazine that comes with the Saturday edition of Corriere della Sera newspaper. I flick through the glossy fashion ads until she appears. And there she is, in her pearl earrings and white shirt, smiling against a yellow backdrop. It’s like seeing an old friend. There’s something so very reassuring about her. And it’s not just because of the way she looks, it’s because of her voice, which rings through her words. She’s familiar but not clawing, opinionated but not demanding, and a little quirky. She talks about personal experiences: how she feels about being mother of the bride, current events like the surprise appearance of JLo during Milan Fashion Week and introduces the themes of special editions, like the one last Saturday on health and wellbeing. As I read her Italian words, their English counterparts respond in my mind and I’m filled with a mix of relief and amusement. Yes, I understand the language, yes, I understand what she’s saying. But most of all, I hear Danda Santini.

About three weeks ago, I decided to make a habit of translating her iO Donna introductions as a way of practising my translation skills. As easy as it is to hear her, translating her is quite another experience, at least to translate her well and capture her voice.Io Donna, Danda Santini, Corriere delle Sera

Here I give you the first paragraph of Over the Top, the piece Santini wrote for the Saturday 13th October edition, translated into English. (Yes, her heading is in English. English idioms are popular in Italy but that’s a discussion for another day). Having spent most of Sunday working on it (the whole piece…), at 08:00 this morning I was on Skype with my fellow translator and interpreter, Elisabetta Serratore, rejigging it a little bit more. Translating is hard! Finding a pitch perfect English equivalent while staying as close to the Italian text as possible is a challenge, akin, I would say, to finding the Holy Grail. Don’t judge before trying it for yourself!

Over the top by Danda Santini (Original Italian version)

Il tassello più vispo dell’offensiva mondiale sulla diversity? Gli “over” (lasciamolo così, inclusivo e un po’ indefinito, per non fare torto a nessuno), che non ci stanno a subire lo scacco dell’età e si smarcano a sorpresa. Con il movimento contro la discriminazione sulla base dell’età e iniziative e corsi per trasformare i passaggi cruciali della vita ribattezzandoli in modo creativo: così si rassicura e si solletica il desiderio di eternità della prima generazione cresciuta con il benessere e senza guerre. Quella generazione conta, è numerosa, è abbiente e spesso pure potente. Vuoi non compiacerla?

Over the top by Danda Santini (English Translation)

Who’s nailing the global offensive on diversity? The “overs” (let’s just say it like that, inclusive and a little vague so as not to offend anyone) who aren’t prepared to let age hold them back and who surprisingly out smart it with the movement against age discrimination and initiatives and courses for transforming momentous life phases, creatively renaming them. This is how the first generation, who grew up with good health and without war, is reassured and enticed by eternal youth. That generation counts, it’s numerous, it’s affluent and often powerful too. So why wouldn’t you want to please them?


La Terra Inquieta (The Restless Earth) at La Triennale di Milano is an exhibition about refugees and migrants.

Francis Alÿs

Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River by Francis Alÿs (2008)

“Do you like the show?” I asked a fellow visitor in Italian as we were nearing the end. “I do,” he replied, “what I like most, is its sense of equilibrio.

Adrian Paci 

Centro di Permanenza Temporanea by Adrian Paci (2007)

I knew exactly what he meant. Equilibrio is the word that came to my mind too. In English it can be translated as equilibrium, balance, poise, composure or stasis. With regards to this show it refers to all of the above.

Liu Xiaodong

Things aren’t as bad as they could be by Liu Xiaodong (2017)

The name of the show is borrowed from the collection of poems by the Martinican writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant. It’s a fitting name, which may sound strange given the sense of equilibrio I just mentioned, but somehow both aspects are present.

Thomas Hirschhorn

Beyond Ruins by Thomas Hirschhorn (2016)

Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and promoted by La Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and La Triennale di Milano, La Terra Inquieta (The Restless Earth) brings together 65 artists (although it doesn’t seem that many) from 40 countries.

Andra Ursuta

Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental by Andra Ursuta (2012)

Gioni’s excellent curatorial direction, the integrity of the works, the storytellers whether they are the artists themselves, many of whom have been refugees or migrants, or the people and experiences they portray together with the absence of the mass media all contribute to make this a five star exhibition.

Abounaddara Films

The Witness by Abounaddara Films

The show highlights many aspects rarely seen via the mass media. The Witness recorded by Abounaddara Films, an anonymous film making company from Damascus, is a series of interviews with different people. In one interview a woman speaks about how she goes to afternoon prayers wearing trousers which is forbidden under the “Islamic State”. Her friends can’t believe it – ‘a girl all by herself facing the “Islamic State”. Talk about a state!’ she says, ‘it’s more like a gang that takes advantage of people’s fear and feels more and more powerful.’ You can see the entire interview here.

Yasmine Kabir

My Migrant Soul by Yasmine Kabir (2001)

The harsh reality of poverty, the devastation of war, cruelty and upheaval – it’s all here but none of it impacted me in the same way as it does via the mass media. I didn’t feel overwhelmed, the need to judge or take a stance but I left with a more empathetic understanding of the migrant and refugee experience than I have honestly ever felt before.

Isaac Julien

Western Union: small boats by Isaac Julien (2007)

Filmed in Palermo, Sicily, Western Union: small boats by Isaac Julien, is, as he explains,  ‘a meditation on Visconti’s The Leopard but set in modern days. We know the story about Visconti, it’s about the decline of the aristocratic classes and, in this moment in time in Sicily, it’s really about, the new émigrés, new people from Africa, coming into Europe.’

Isaac Julien

Western Union: small boats by Isaac Julien (2007)

It’s incredibly beautiful and thought provoking.

Isaac Julien

Western Union: small boats by Isaac Julien (2007)

What came to my mind was the unnerving juxtaposition of beauty and evil. For example, we see people at the beach swimming in a crystal blue sea only a stone’s through away from dead bodies covered in foil lying on the shore.

Bouchra Khalili

The Mapping Journey Project by Bouchra Khalili (2008 – 2011)

Not surprisingly, means of travel – especially small boats – figure throughout the show. I found Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project particularly informative. She represents eight different illegal journeys made by immigrants coming from north Africa or Africa to France. Each one recounts their journey while tracing it over a map. You can sit, watch and listen to each journey. In Mapping Journey #1 a man describes travelling in a small boat, ‘You can’t even imagine the huge waves and the fear’ he says.

Adel Abdessemed

Hope by Adel Abdessemed (2011 – 2012)

Hope by Adel Abdessemed is a wooden boat filled with cast resin sculptures of stuffed black garbage bags. He found the boat on the Florida Keys. As described on the wall panel it’s, “a likely castoff of migrants arriving from Cuba,” while the black sacks, “offer a blunt metaphor for how the boat’s presumed passengers are regarded by much of society.”  ‘Hope,’ says the artist, is the only negative thing in the world.

Mona Hatoum (1998)

Map by Mona Hatoum (1998)

The precarious nature of life is another strong theme throughout the show. In Mona Hatoum’s Map transparent glass marbles are laid out on the floor as a world map . They’re not stuck to the floor, they’re just placed on the floor, “revealing the planet’s territorial divisions as both dangerous and fragile,” as described on the information panel. While I was there one guy accidently trod on the bottom of South America which rolled away haphazardly. Perhaps the lack of protection is not altogether accidental hammering home the point, I think, that anything can happen to anyone at any given moment in time so in this respect we’re all in the proverbial same boat but I think this is exactly what gives the show that sense of equilibrio which I mentioned earlier.

The show runs until the 20th August 2017 and really worth a visit in you’re in Milan.

Quick trip to Liverpool: City of Art, hometown of The Beatles

Paul McCartney's childhood home  in Liverpool

The Art Detective’s Muse outside Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool

Grey skies, rain, cathedrals, craic, culture and really friendly people. Dublin? Nope, Liverpool.

It was the accent that gave it away. I got off the train at Lime Street Station on Thursday afternoon and hopped in a cab to Hope Street Hotel. I’d come for the Preview launch and VIP Evening of the Liverpool Contemporary Arts Fair 2014 which was taking place that evening at the National World Museum. What to expect I had no idea so I bought a new dress and packed my Jimmy Choos. As it turned out, it was a much more relaxed event than I’d imagined – I think I was getting it confused with the Liverpool Biennial 2014 which is a completely different thing and why sometimes I wish I had an assistant.

Louise Minchin

BBC News Presenter Louise Minchin opening Liverpool Contemporary Arts Fair Thursday 3 July 2014

Still, it was a great evening with art and friends so I’m not complaining in the slightest. The event was officially opened by Breakfast on BBC One presenter Louise Minchin. There was a collection of drawings for sale by Nelson Mandela presented by the London based Belgravia Gallery and Christian Furr (the youngest artist to have ever officially painted the Queen’s portrait) auctioned a portrait he will do to the highest bidder on the evening donating all proceeds to the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital which I thought was a very nice gesture indeed. He also curated the exhibition Liverpool Love which is part of the fair and a must see for some great art works by the likes of Brendan Neiland, Gaston Ugalde, Noel Fielding, Patrick Hughes, Stuart Sutcliffe, Thomas Doran, Christian himself of course and lots more.

Go For Your Gun by Mackenzie Thorpe

Go For Your Gun by Mackenzie Thorpe

An artist I loved was  Mackenzie Thorpe and I really enjoyed speaking to Wendy who was representing him. He’s colour blind which doesn’t surprise me as many artists are. She also told me she’d had dinner the night before at San Carlo supposedly the best restaurant in Liverpool where she’d met – wait for it – Chris de Burgh. Remember ‘Don’t pay the Ferryman‘ and Lady in Red’? A throw back to my teenage years growing up in Dublin. Well after a couple of shots of Agwa de Bolivia (compliments of Agwa de Bolivia and Liverpool Love) and thinking of Chris de Burgh, I decided to jump ship and headed to The Philharmonic Pub on Hope Street before dinner at The London Carriage Works restaurant which is part of Hope Street Hotel. Dinner was yummy – I had the chicken liver parfait followed by the duck and for dessert the sticky meringue. Thankfully I’m starting the 5:2 diet soon or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Anglican Cathedral Liverpool

From the moment I arrived in Liverpool everyone kept saying there’s so much to do and actually there is. The next day I put my tourist hat on and mossied down to Albert Dock where I spent an hour at the International Slavery Museum (from Wiki “By the close of the 18th century 40% of the world’s, and 80% of Britain’s Atlantic slave activity was accounted for by slave ships that voyaged from the docks of Liverpool” – wow didn’t know that) and over an hour at The Titanic and Liverpool: the untold story at the Merseyside Maritime Museum – really fascinating.  Out of a sense of guilt I poked my head into both the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals – not for me – but I did like the pink neon sign in the Anglican Cathedral which reads “I Felt You And I Knew You Loved Me” although personally, I think it would be more suited at the Biennial.


Later that afternoon I went on a black cab Beatles Tour. There was five of us in the cab as the cabby waxed lyrical about John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe – one of his works at the Liverpool Love exhibition. I learnt a lot about the Beatles that I didn’t know before – for example Stawberry Field was an orphanage where John Lennon liked to hang out when he was about 11 or 12. Surprisingly however the tour didn’t include a trip to the Cavern but ended at Eleanor Rigby’s grave site which was a bit of a let down.


My train back to London was at 7:50 pm so after the tour, I had a quick bite in the dining room of The Philharmonic Pub – not bad at all – then headed to the station. It’s a pity I couldn’t stay another night but I needed to be back in London today. Anyway, if you fancy a relaxed, culture-filled weekend away Liverpool is defo worth a visit and if you’re looking for a hotel I highly recommend The Hope Street Hotel – brilliant staff, nice rooms, great restaurant and the girls behind the desk will be able to tell you all you need to know.

Top Picks at The Affordable Art Fair London March 13-16

It’s a March sunny London weekend and there’s a lot you could do from having a picnic on Hampstead Heath, to rummaging in a market, to hanging out on the Southbank. Or  here’s another suggestion: Take the tube to Sloane Square, have breaky or lunch in Colbert, leaving Colbert turn right and immediate right again where you’ll find a shuttle bus waiting for you . Get on – it will deliver you straight to the door of the Affordable Art Fair at Battersea Park. P.S. Don’t worry if the wait in Colbert is too long, there’s a cafe and champagne bar at the fair.

My top picks at The Affordable Art Fair  running in London this weekend:

Ring-a-zing-zing by Lucie Bennett

Ring-a-zing-zing by Lucie Bennett 2013, 79 x 108 cms, screenprint on paper, edition of 75, £950

Over the past ten years, Lucie Bennett has become well known for her Glicee prints (prints made from digitally-created imagery) and silkscreen prints. As Carys Lake-Edwards of Eyestorm online gallery writes, “She first came into the limelight back in 2004 when her work featured in the first British series of The Apprentice where the contestants hosted a solo show of her paintings in London’s most established gallery row, Cork Street. Since then her work has continuously drawn worldwide interest from new potential art buyers and established collectors alike.” She explains why Bennett’s prints are investment pieces which you can read about here.

'Oh Yeah' by Jennifer Ward

‘Oh Yeah’ by Jennifer Ward 2013, oil on paper 97 x 73cm, £1100

A stomach full of anxiety churns underneath a bikini perfect bod – it’s a double edged sword being beautiful in Jennifer Ward‘s world. The artist expresses her mixed-up feelings in big brush strokes and strong colours.  Rufus Knight-Webb, director of Knight Webb Gallery will happily chat to you about the artist and pull out more of her works to show you. Worth having a peek I think.

Beetle Rider by Tessa Farmer

On the left: Beetle Rider by Tessa Farmer, an edition of 12, £550, on the right Captured Bee, one off £1250.

Enter into the world of giant size insects and minuscule skeletons made from insect wings by Tessa Farmer. Intricate and playful – by 3.00 pm yesterday there was only one left of ‘Beetle Rider’ out of an edition of 12 – maybe gone now too. Go to the bo.lee gallery stand for more info.

Polar Bear and Dog by Herve Maury

Polar Bear and Dog by Herve Maury, mixed media, £1,350

Hervé Maury expresses the tender side of life. He’s represented by Glasgow based gallery Tracey McNee Fine Art.

Marilyn Monroe in Misfits by Olivier Camen

Marilyn Monroe in Misfits by Olivier Camen Mixed media on canvas 81x100cm £3,200

Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn – you just keep giving and giving and giving – inspiration that is. French artist Olivier Camen  used to work in cinema and – I hope I have this right – his grandfather taught him how to be seamster. He gave up working in the movies to work full time as an artist combining his knowledge of film and fabric. He’s represented here by Bernard Chauchet Contemporary Art who concentrate on French artists.

Father and Son II by Ishai Rimmer

Father and Son II by Ishai Rimmer, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 120 cms, 2012, £900

Last but not least, Father and Son II by Ishai Rimmer at the jotta stand. It’s not one for my livingroom wall personally, but I feel compelled to mention it as it captures such a strong bond between father and son and a life time’s worth of unacknowledged feelings between two men – well that’s just how it struck me.

I could go on and on but as I said the sun is shinning here in London and I’m dying to get out and about. Just to remind you, works start from £40 and go up to £4,000. There’s something for everyone and well worth a visit especially if you’re in the mood to make a purchase.