Life in Italy

Cucina Romana, accidentally Paleo-style

Having a gluten free toddler and no Chiptole around is hard, or so I thought. Living in the land that flows with bread and pasta, I assumed that Joey’s poor tummy troubles would condemn him to a life of frozen french fries, cuties fished from the depths of the diaper bag, and Ziplocks filled with peanuts and raisins every time we ate out, which was often the first 3 months we spent in Rome.

Between our resident nanny/tourista extraordinaire wanting to see all the sights of the city and Dave’s crazy work schedule, replete with dozens of work dinners and social events (you can stop rolling your eyes, I promise that 4 course Italian dinners get burdensome after a while), we literally ate out of the house an average of 5 times per week. And poor Joey? Well, he tasted his way through a patate fritte tour of the Eternal City. Except for some terrifying situations, where french fries weren’t on the menu…and then we froze.

What to do? We would start frantically pouring over the menu, trying to identify safe dishes while slapping away desperate hands from the omnipresent breadbasket. Um, how about carrotes julianne con limone? Or tacchino arrosta con rocket? Maybe some carcifora romana?

Before we knew it, we’d identified more than a few winners, and we made the startling discovery that our kids don’t only tolerate but actually really like artichokes, broccoli, roasted red peppers, carrots marinated in olive oil and garlic, and most surprisingly to me, caprese salad – and the whole thing, not just the mozzarella like their weirdo mom.

So we’ve been cooking more meals at home these last couple weeks, and I’m slowly learning to shift from bean and corn-tortilla centric dishes to preparing meals using whatever is fresh and in season at our market down below the apartment.

Right now, strawberries, artichokes, fennel (gag), and asparagus are all in season, and therefore cheap and abundant. It’s not like in the US where you can find whatever produce you’re looking for, either; they don’t seem to import out-of-season goodies from across the globe, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, I’m guessing.

Which brings me to last night’s dinner. I am no photographer, and I am an embarrassment to the blogosphere with my utter and complete lack of technical knowledge, so please forgive these fancy caption-less photos which are in no way worthy of pinterest … or really even of your continued attention. But I took them and I’ve come this far in my naptime posting, so:

Paleo/Gluten-free Chicken Parmesan with Roman Artichokes

(Serves 2 adults and 2 hungry-ish toddlers)

1 boneless skinless chicken breast, filleted into thin slices
8-10 large cherry tomatoes
4 oz parmesan cheese (powdered fakey fake is fine. Mine was powdered real, but I’m sure it still would’ve given a real Italian a stroke to see me dump it from a plastic bag rather than shred it myself)
a few sprigs of basil
4 cloves of garlic
olive oil
1 egg
3 artichokes, trimmed and with stems intact (probably hard to find in the US? I don’t know)
salt and pepper

First things first, call your husband and ask him to bring home some red wine. Then, unwisely allow the kids to climb up on the chairs next to the table you’re working on, so they can help de-stem the tomatoes and practice grabbing the knife by it’s blade.

After a few minutes of dicing and cutting, leave the children unattended in the kitchen to wander out on the balcony to snap a picture of St. Peter’s in the sunset glow. I will never get tired of this view.

Get the artichokes going first, because they kind of take forever. Using a knife to open up a little spae in the center, stuff in some fresh basil, some parmesan cheese, and a clove of garlic. Turn the artichoke upside down (the filling won’t fall out if you’ve stuffed it tight enough), and stand it on it’s head in an empty pot. Repeat with remaining artichokes, and drizzle them with olive oil when complete. Pour in just enough water to cover each artichoke about mid-way up its’ body, leaving the stems exposed, and cover with a lid. They shouldn’t have enough water in there to float. Steam them over medium heat for about 40 minutes.

So good. And edible in their entirety. How did I not know this for 30 years?

 Next, crack an egg into a bowl, scramble it, and dip each chicken breast fillet in the egg wash. Have a second small bowl filled with parmesan cheese, italian spices of your choice, and salt and pepper nearby. Dredge each egg-washed piece through the cheese bowl and then lay in a baking dish. Dump olive oil over the chicken and bake at 375 for about 20 minutes (depending on how thinly sliced the chicken is, so keep peeking in.)

You can melt some softer cheese on top of them towards the end of the cooking process. I had gouda on hand, so that’s what I used.

Finally, take the cherry tomatoes and place them in a bowl or pot of almost-boiling hot water. I think this is called blanching them, and I have no idea where I heard of doing this, nor have I any experience whatsoever making tomato sauce, since hellooooo Super Target used to make it for me. But I didn’t have any sauce on hand, and I was like, get it girl, what you know about rocking a wolf on your noggin? (End terrifying glimpse into my internal monologue.) So I thought I’d try to make some.

Drain the blanched tomatoes and proceed to split them open with a fork (careful, they squirt) and smash them into oblivion. Add parmesan, chopped basil, salt and pepper to taste, and some oregano because hey, you’re the boss of this tomato sauce. And an entire clove of crushed garlic. Saute on medium high for 20 minutes or so, until the sauce thickens a bit. It will be very chunky, but also very delicious, so … win win.

In retrospect, larger tomatoes would probably have yielded a more respectable amount of sauce.

Finally, wander around your kitchen taking ‘artsy’ photos while waiting for the stupid artichokes to finish cooking.

Our matching espresso makers. Dave is on a decaf kick, so we’re a mixed household these days.
The view from the kitchen window. Not too shabby, at least when scary neighbor lady isn’t creeping at us through the window directly across. She always recoils in horror if we catch her eye. Viva Italia.

Finally, serve everything up covered with the finished sauce and a generous sprinkling of parmesan, letting your toddler season his own plate before screaming in protest when you limit him to 4 tablespoons-full, and forget to take a picture of the final product. Serve with a bottle of chianti and pellagrino, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with Nutella and/or whipped cream.

Buono mangia!


  • Brenda P.

    Awesome, Jenny! I would love to have joined you! Now, I do not have celiac, but my stomach was (is) stupid-sensitive over random foods, and I was gluten-free for awhile in an attempt to live. Since bread was so abundant on my trips to Rome, and it ended up in my hand without even reaching for it (I swear), that I ate some. Turns out, it digested AND it didn’t hurt. Back in the states, I did a very small bit of what we’ll call “research” online. I learned that the wheat they grow in Italy is more pure, similar to how we have our cutsey old-timey U.S. “heritage tomatoes” that taste like tomatoes from heaven. Similar to our grocery store cardboard tomatoes, the wheat and subsequent flour in America has been modified and modified and modified to be heartier and produce a higher yield and give us all cramps. So, I wonder if your boy could handle a little Italian wheat? Maybe try something that wasn’t a yeast-raised bread, maybe a noodle? Just throwing that out there…

  • mindyz

    This gets me thinking I need to maybe change the diet in our household. My husband has a super sensitive stomach and had a bout with diverticulitis this past fall. So…hmmm…
    Love the picture of St. Peters!

  • Anonymous

    wow, sounds delicious! I have never eaten artichokes…they kinda scare me a little, but yours sound not so bad:)

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