Posted Aug 25, 2011
Mary Wheeler has been on a gluten-free diet for about six years. She tends to favor restaurants that serve rice, avoiding Italian places because of the pizza and pasta.
“I just consider it art,” Wheeler, of Madison, said of food with gluten. “I can smell it and look at it but I can’t eat it.”
For Wheeler and others with gluten sensitivity, eating out can be tricky. Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, can cause discomfort and inflammation of the small intestines, especially for those with a condition known as celiac disease.
But now, an increasing number of restaurants are catering to people who are on a gluten-free diet for celiac disease, digestive problems or even weight loss. While some grocery stores have long had special sections with gluten-free offerings, many local restaurants now tout gluten-free offerings or even entire gluten-free menus.
Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano on Madison’s Far West Side has an extensive gluten-free menu, with about 30 items. Offerings include gluten-free bread, pizza crust, spinach spaghetti and penne pasta that can be swapped for the regular pasta in any of its dishes.
Andrew Nicholson, Biaggi’s managing partner, said between 20 to 25 percent of Biaggi’s sales are from its gluten-free items. Five years ago, the restaurant made available an entirely gluten-free menu.
“We’ve always done gluten-free dishes, but with the call for it increasing, we try to take the guesswork away and try to make people feel more comfortable when they have an actual gluten-free menu in front of them,” Nicholson said. “It seems like more and more people are going that way.”
Vin Santo, an Italian restaurant that opened in Middleton in 1998, has offered gluten-free options from Day One. It doesn’t have a separate menu, but identifies five gluten-free entrees and several others that can be modified, said owner Gregg Edwardsen. A chicken piccatta, for instance, can be dredged in rice flour instead of wheat flour, and an eggplant torte, along the lines of eggplant Parmesan, is dusted with rice flour and then fried.
“We started doing it before it was cool,” Edwardsen said. “We recognized early on that there are some people who will come with family or friends who love pasta but they need to have a gluten-free option.”
Susan Nitzke, an emeritus professor of nutritional sciences at UW-Madison, said a number of factors have come together to make gluten-free a more prevalent request from restaurant customers.
“There are certainly more people who have identified the need to avoid gluten,” she said. “Traditionally, that would be people with celiac disease or some medical form of gluten intolerance, but there are also some popular diet plans, or more sort of folklore nutrition beliefs that involve gluten.”
John Gadau, owner of the popular Downtown restaurant Sardine, said the restaurant doesn’t have gluten-free bread or highlight anything as gluten-free on its menus, but has always accommodated people who can’t eat gluten. His staff can point diners in the right direction, he said, adding that if wait staff are unsure they ask the kitchen.
“Our staff knows what’s going on as far as most of the dishes. We’ve gone over that, what it is to be gluten-free,” he said. “If it’s a fish that may be dredged in flour, we can eliminate that. That’s essentially how it works.”
Nitzke, meanwhile, cautions that those with celiac disease need to stay away from even traces of wheat and should always double-check so-called gluten-free offerings. For example, there may be a gravy that was made with flour that the server or chef wasn’t aware of, she said. Other people who are avoiding wheat for part of a weight loss program or another reason probably don’t need to be quite as careful, Nitzke added.
Dr. Arnold Wald, a gastroenterologist at UW Hospital and Clinics, said celiac disease and gluten intolerance are bigger problems than formerly realized. Whether a person has either condition is often hard to prove, he said.
“It’s the perception that you’re having symptoms that seems to be the most important thing,” Wald said. “So if people feel better if they’re not eating gluten, then I think it’s probably a wise idea to try to order gluten-free when they are eating out.”
About 1 in 100 people has celiac disease, but most don’t know it, said Danna Korn, a California-based author of books on gluten-free cooking and living. Korn said estimates show that more than half the nation’s population might have some trouble digesting gluten.
Korn, who wrote “Wheat-Free, Worry-Free: The Art of Happy, Healthy, Gluten-Free Living,” said that in some areas of the country, as many as 50 percent of restaurants are reaching out to gluten-free diners.
Nationwide, that number is “probably more like 20 percent overall and growing,” she said. “That number was about 2 percent five years ago.”
As more people find a need to avoid gluten, they are becoming more assertive about asking restaurants to accommodate them, Korn said.
“It’s an overall awareness of people realizing that they don’t want to live their life in a bubble and just sit at home and make their own little gluten-free thing,” she said.
Potato and Parmesan-crusted tilapia
For the fish:
3/4 cup dehydrated potato
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon cracked pepper
4 tilapia filets, 7 oz. each
Combine potato, cheese, paprika, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Set aside. Whisk eggs in a separate mixing bowl. Dredge fish fillets in egg mixture and coat thoroughly, then dredge into potato mixture and coat thoroughly. Cook fish in a non-stick skillet on medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of oil for 2 minutes on each side.
For the sauce:
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1 lemon, for juice
1/4 cup chopped basil
salt and pepper to taste
Combine wine and onion in a small sauce pot and over medium heat and reduce by two-thirds. Reduce heat to low, slowly whisk in cold butter about 2 tablespoons at a time. Add juice from lemon, chopped basil, salt and pepper. Serve with your favorite summer vegetable.
1/4 cup chopped tomato
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup grated mozzarella/provolone blend
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
1/4 cup ground mild Italian sausage
1/8 cup caramelized onion
1 gluten-free pizza crust (see note)
Combine tomato, oregano, oil, garlic (plus salt and pepper to taste) for the sauce. Spread evenly on the pizza crust. Add 1/3 of the cheeses, then the sausage, then the onions and finally the remaining cheese. Cook in a 400-degree oven on a pizza stone or cookie sheet for 10 to 12 minutes.
Note: Gluten-free pizza crusts are available at some local stores, including Silly Yak Bakery, 7866 Mineral Point Road.
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Copyright © 2011, The Wisconsin State Journal