Many restaurants that offer gluten-free pasta rely on dried commercial versions. But at Rialto (which also has menus that cater to nut, dairy, and alcohol allergies), Jody Adams has literally taken matters into her own hands by creating a house-made gluten-free pasta, served with peppers, eggplant, and chickpeas. “We make it with a designated KitchenAid machine that never sees gluten,” says the chef. Developing the recipe was a little tricky: “It took me a couple of days to get it right, and it’s not like pasta with gluten, that’s for sure. But people seem to really like it, and for the most part I’m pretty proud of it.”
Legal Sea Foods was an early adopter. “We’ve had a gluten-free menu implemented for seven years or so,” says executive chef and vice-president Richard Vellante. Legal’s also takes the step of making sure that the gluten-free menu “looks just like the regular menu,” says Vellante. “We don’t want customers to feel uncomfortable.”
Mainstream food manufacturers are getting into the act. When gluten-free practices first came to the fore, niche manufacturers began to fill the demand for specialty products. But now even major players such as General Mills are jumping in, with a line of gluten-free Betty Crocker mixes and gluten-free Bisquick. Robert Dircks, marketing manager for Betty Crocker and Bisquick, acknowledges that some sales may be trend driven — “Any time you get a lot of celebrities doing something, folks will naturally give it a try,” he says — but the category is strong and growing.
King Arthur Flour might seem an unlikely entrant in the gluten-free derby, but products are actually a fit for the company’s core mission, says spokesperson Terri Rosenstock. “We are about baking for everyone, whether they can tolerate gluten or not,” she says. The company has a line of certified gluten-free products and a dedicated gluten-free blogger who creates suitable recipes for the website.
Consumers who rely on gluten-free products and dining options are grateful for the recent proliferation — up to a point. Skye Stewart, an Arlington resident whose now 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, says that when her family first went gluten-free, “there were two things we were grappling with: figuring out what was safe, and then, once we did, figuring out what tasted good. There is some not-tasty gluten-free food out there, and now we know we don’t have to eat it just because it’s gluten-free.” Gluten-free food, she notes, isn’t de facto healthy: “A product might be safe, but that doesn’t mean it has fiber or is low in sugar or fat.” But quality and variety have improved, she says, in the years her family’s been off gluten.
Vicki Rowland, of Watertown, who reluctantly stopped eating gluten a few months ago to see if it might help her stomach troubles, recently met a friend for lunch at Pizzeria Uno. “They tout their gluten-free pizza, but I learned it’s better to have something else,” she says. But she’s been pleased with gluten-free cookies and rice pasta from Trader Joe’s, and Udi’s bread, one of the more ubiquitous gluten-free brands, “seems to be the best out there.”
The demand for gluten-free food isn’t going away any time soon. Most chefs report that customers seeking such meals represent a small portion of their business — but it’s a portion they must accommodate. And it’s not necessarily the quantity of gluten-averse customers that matters. “It’s interesting,” says Vellante. “It’s a small number of people who come in, but they have a loud voice.”
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at email@example.com.