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Monday, July 21, 2008
Restaurants Offering Gluten-Free Options
From the NYTimes Dining Section on July 20, 2008

Restaurants Offering Gluten-Free Options


WHEN Barbara Bonavoglia, 65, learned about four and a half years ago that she and her daughter, Lisa Mackie, 33, had celiac disease, she realized they would never eat regular pasta again. It was not an easy adjustment for Ms. Bonavoglia, who grew up on her family’s Italian-American fare. Celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine, is controllable only by eliminating gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains.

Ms. Bonavoglia, who lives in Bohemia, decided to experiment with gluten-free cuisine at home using rice-based pastas, which her body could tolerate. Soon afterward, she brought samples of the pasta and a list of gluten-free ingredients she was using to the owner of Mama’s Italian Restaurant in Oakdale, where she had been a customer for 25 years. She spoke to the owner, John Passafiume, to ask if he would put just a few entrees on his menu, she said, “and I could guarantee he’d get a lot of business.”

Within a year, Mama’s had added a gluten-free menu including linguine, penne and breaded, fried calamari made using mixtures of tapioca, arrowroot, brown rice and other gluten-free flours. Business picked up; “I really didn’t think there would be so many coming for gluten-free,” Mr. Passafiume said.

Mama’s is one of a growing number of restaurants on Long Island that have added gluten-free dishes to accommodate customers with celiac disease.

Italian food poses a particular challenge, given the wheat content in standard pastas and pizza, but in the past year alone, at least three Italian restaurants on Long Island have started offering gluten-free options.

Plum Tomatoes Pizzeria and Restaurant in Mineola began serving an individual-size gluten-free pizza two months ago, said Tony Guardavaccaro, the co-owner. Café Formaggio in Carle Place, which serves gluten-free pizza and pasta, started doing so about eight months ago, and just added brownies and gluten-free beer, said Joe Licata, a co-owner, who has a family member with celiac disease. Luca Miceli, owner of the restaurant Mr. Miceli in Rockville Centre, has a gluten allergy and offers mozzarella sticks, chicken parmesan, angel hair pasta and other gluten-free items.

Frank Carr, a co-owner of Emerson’s Restaurant in Babylon, added gluten-free items like steak tartare and black tea crème brûlée to the French-American menu about two years ago when customers came in inquiring about them. “We never regretted that decision,” Mr. Carr said. “We feel good about it.”

At Oysterman’s in Sayville, the chefs will modify any dish on the regular menu for diners who have celiac disease; a new menu insert will be available in August, said James Gilroy, a co-owner. “It’s not that difficult to do,” he said. “And it’s good for business.”

About 1 percent of the United States population is affected by celiac disease, according to Dr. Peter H. R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. If not treated, the ailment, which is diagnosed through blood tests and an intestinal biopsy, can lead to nutritional deficiencies, anemia and other complications.

The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America has a Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program that provides resources and guidelines for restaurants on keeping their kitchens safe.

Mr. Passafiume of Mama’s, one of the restaurants participating in the program, installed separate cookers, fryers, pots and other utensils to prevent cross-contamination with dishes containing wheat and gluten.

On a recent Saturday evening, several customers at his 90-seat pizzeria-style business were requesting items from the four-page specialty list.

“Some of his gluten-free is better than regular food,” said Margaret Costanza, 49, of Holbrook, who learned four years ago that she had celiac disease.

Across from Ms. Costanza sat Caroline Weiss, 71, of Deer Park, who received the same diagnosis six months ago. “I’m eating chocolate cake,” Ms. Weiss said. “Would you believe this?”

It was a gluten-free flourless torte, Mr. Passafiume said.

A restaurateur who has celiac disease herself, Joanne Lentini, 52, a co-owner of Caffe Baldo in Wantagh, was making gluten-free pasta for her own meals before she thought to offer it to customers. When a woman came in with a group but did not order pasta, Ms. Lentini discovered that the patron also suffered from the disorder. “I said: ‘Why don’t you have some of my pasta? I keep it in the back,’ ” said Ms. Lentini, who then began offering a homemade gluten-free menu at her family-run restaurant.

Unlike Ms. Lentini, Roger Montague, the owner of Smoking Sloe’s in Northport, said that when customers told him they had celiac disease, he had to ask what it was. He began offering a gluten-free menu including ribs and barbecued chicken a few months ago. Though he doesn’t have duplicate facilities to prevent cross-contamination, he said his kitchen was clean, his “core products” are gluten-free naturally, and his barbecue sauce does not contain wheat, which is often used as a thickening agent.

Another naturally gluten-free menu item is the dosas, or crispy crepes, served at Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett; they are made with rice and lentil flour, said Gary MacGurn, co-owner with his wife, Isabel.

National chains, including Outback Steakhouse, Legal Sea Foods, Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse and P. F. Chang’s China Bistro also offer gluten-free menu items, according to representatives for the companies.

Chefs at P. F. Chang’s, for instance, receive special training, use marked, colored plates to distinguish dishes with dietary restrictions and set aside one wok station solely for gluten-free items, said Laura Cherry, a spokeswoman.

Fran Watins, 57, of Commack, who is on the board of the Suffolk County Celiacs Support and Awareness Group, said that next month the organization, which has 400 to 500 members, will meet for the first time with restaurant owners on Long Island who may be interested in offering gluten-free menus.

Ms. Watins said that sensitivities to gluten differ, but celiacs have to be vigilant. Even a small amount of gluten can trigger a reaction, she said.

Ms. Bonavoglia, who is also on the board of the Suffolk celiac group with Ms. Watins, has been campaigning to get more gluten-free dishes in restaurants. A piano teacher by trade, she took up baking after her diagnosis, and now works with Garguilo’s Bakery in St. James on a line of gluten-free items, including pie crust, bread and cookies. She uses xanthan gum to bind the flours. She hopes that more restaurants will create gluten-free menus, and that awareness will continue to grow.

“It’s spreading,” Ms. Bonavoglia said. “It’s getting out there.”

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