On Being Lactose Intolerant In Italy

One of the first things people talk about regarding their visit to Italy is the food. Gelato, pizza, pasta, pastry- the list is endless; my self-restraint is not.

Now, most people know; no one is more willing to risk it all than a lactose intolerant person facing a tasty, dairy filled treat, but having had a difficult time with the food on my last trip to Italy, I had some concerns going into round two with the country.

Luckily, this time around, I found dairy free food options to be significantly more available than I had anticipated.

I’ve gotten very much into cappuccinos on this trip, which I find to be the ultimate test of dairy flexibility. Used to cafes in the US often having one-non dairy milk option, I’d find myself regularly have the following conversations with different baristas throughout Italy:

“Do you have any non dairy milk, like almond milk, oat milk…..?”

And then we’d stare at each other for a moment while I’d wait for them to tell me which singular option they had available and they’d be waiting for me to specify which of their many options I’d prefer. So far, I’ve been offered oat milk, almond milk, lactose free milk, soy milk, and rice milk. I’m tempted to make a bingo card!

I was most pleasantly surprised with the gelato. I’d made a game plan; head to the top rated Gelateria in town, pop a few Lactaid and hope for the best. If I was going to be sick from the gelato, it’d better be the best!

Chatting with the friendly server, she laughed and suggested that I just have a fruit flavor. As it turns out, fruit flavored gelato is almost always naturally dairy free! There is potential for cross contamination, of course, so those with extreme sensitivities may want to play it safe, but at this point, I’ve had quite a few scoops of the most delicious fruit gelato of my life with absolutely no issue.

Pizza was a bit trickier- it’s all about that cheese, isn’t it? I did see a few restaurants offering a lactose-free pizza, but the only pizza I ended up eating was actually cheese-less and somehow still delicious. The staff was super accommodating of me and allowed me to customize the pizza with whatever toppings I wanted in lieu of the cheese.

For the record, my traveling companion had some standard pizza a few times on our trip and always let me have a bite or two, so I can confidently say that the regular pizza is worth getting sick over if necessary.

I’d recommend having a general awareness of types of cheeses and milks- I’ve been caught off guard more than once by unexpectedly creamy sauces, but asking a waiter for clarification is always a smart option. They can’t warn you of allergens if they don’t know you have any! Some of the more touristic restaurants will have indicators on their menus, but it’s not guaranteed.

All in all, I’d spent nearly a week in Florence and Rome without once having a problem with my food. At no point did I go to any sort of specialty vegan restaurant or even seek out restaurants with dairy free options in mind. It may take some creativity with the menu, but I found it completely possible to find a dairy free item on nearly every menu- or at least to modify an existing option to accommodate my needs.

Don’t forget to be polite when asking about menu modifications, and have a backup option if the allergen can’t be removed. Remember, they’re doing you a favor- let’s all make it as easy for each other as we can.

11 thoughts on “On Being Lactose Intolerant In Italy

  1. I am so surprised you found it relatively easy to find dairy-free options for everything from gelato to pizza. Good to know and hope you tipped the staff a little for their efforts.

    1. Well, I can’t say I was looking for gluten free food (big fan of carbs!), but the first time I went to Italy, I was lactose intolerant and my companion had celiac disease! I can’t say it was easy, but neither of us starved. It might be worth the risk for the museums alone!

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