January 31, 2010

Mama Mia! Gluten free Italian Restaurant in suburban Chicago

It's always exciting when I discover a restaurant with a gluten free menu. I'll read about places online and immediately email Alexandra the link with the subject line "We're going..." She always responds with "For sure!" Dining out when you follow a gluten free diet can be a challenge, especially at an Italian restaurant.

Recently the fellas at Palermo's in Orland found the sister blog to this site, and let us know that they recently developed a gluten free menu. Naturally I was filled with questions. Do they use a pre-made crust? How do they handle cross-contamination? Basically I wanted to know if they were really aware of the purpose of gluten free foods and not just jumping on the gluten free food craze to make a buck.

The response was very reassuring, proving they were serious about gluten free food. The General Manager, Adam Cisek, told me:
We make gluten free crust using rice and tapioca flours. We do not buy anything premade, just as the rest of Palermo's products, it is made in house from scratch.

Cross contamination is something that comes second nature to well run food service operations since it is part of sanitation protocol. There is a challenge for us in the case of gluten free products. Flour is in the air during our peak hours hours of operation in the pizzeria kitchen. So for example, we prepare our gluten free pizza dough first thing in the morning and store it in a sealed container away from the pizza line.

Our gluten free products never get prepared in the pizza kitchen but rather
in the sauté kitchen where our chef, Anthony, myself or Ryan
(Assistant General Manager) oversee the preparation. It is a much more controlled environment in terms of gluten. We prepare the menu item, in this case pizza, away from other prep functions. We place the pizza in one of the pans designated only for gluten free baking and use a designated pizza oven for gluten free orders. All of our gluten free menu items are treated with equal care. They will be prepared from scratch and cooked in a controlled environment.

We have a highly qualified staff. Our kitchen staff all have culinary
education. We cook from scratch, so we know what is in our food. We want to do
this for people. This is reason we get up every morning. We love to see people
enjoy food. It brings joy to someone's day on so many levels. And really, what
better opportunity for fulfillment than this.

He sounded like he knows his stuff...and I was dying to try it.

Last Thursday I invited Babs (my gluten free mama) to join me out in Orland Park to meet Adam and dig into some gluten free Italian food. When we first arrived, we admired the decor of the cozy little restaurant. The entire interior was draped with white twinkle lights, creating a warm glow, perfect for enjoying a relaxing meal of pasta and wine. We were seated in a corner booth and presented with the gluten free menu I so looked forward to. Both of us were overwhelmed with the large selection of appetizers, entrees, and pasta dishes.

We started off with one of the appetizers. After going back and forth on a few options, we settled on the Goat Cheese Polenta with Spicy Marinara.

I loves me some polenta, especially when it's homemade and not in a chunk vacuum sealed in plastic. (Although that works in a pinch). My mom was even more excited about this dish, because her grandma used to make polenta often when she was growing up. My mom could never quite duplicate her grandmother's recipe and hasn't attempted to in years, but when she tasted these polenta cakes, it took her right back to her childhood.

A cheese pizza was brought out next. Oozing with the sweet tomato sauce I loved so much before I went gluten free, I was thoroughly impressed. The crust was exactly how I remember crust to be - the outer edges crunchy, the rest thicker and able to hold its toppings. No crumbly, mushy crust here. I ate the leftovers the next day and after warming in the microwave, the edges of the crust were still crunchy! (I think the pizza was even better the next day, to be honest.)

Pasta, pasta, and more pasta followed! Penne with Asparagus, Artichoke and Sun Dried Tomato; Penne with Basil Pesto and Grilled Portobello Mushroom Caps; Spaghetti with Marinara. All amazing. You would have never guessed the pasta was gluten free. Adam told us he did extensive research and talked with restaurant owners in some of the top New York restaurants for their recommendations on gluten free pasta.

As if all that food wasn't enough, we had two chicken dishes, Chicken Limone and Chicken Marsala. Again, these dishes were outstanding. The chicken was so tender and juicy in both. The Marsala was my favorite, the rich wine and mushroom sauce made every bite just melt in my mouth.

We could not believe how incredible our dinner was. Each bite tasted better than the last. At one point Babs even exclaimed, "This is the best thing I've ever tasted!" (She was talking about that Penne Pesto.) It's true. Everything was truly enjoyable. The staff at Palermo's was wonderful, so accommodating and friendly; the atmosphere was inviting, a perfect spot for date night - with a hottie or as in my case, your mom; and the food...well it was so refreshing to have options! Not only that, I didn't have to worry about the possibility of getting sick. The chef, Anthony, even came out to speak with us. He was so professional and very interested in our gluten free diets. Obviously he's taking the proper precautions to ensure we're safe. He asked for our feedback and opinions on how the textures and consistency of the dishes compared to similar meals. His concern and interest in gluten free cuisine shows how passionate the folks at Palermo's are about delivering an authentic Italian gluten free menu.

I hiiiiiiighly recommend Palermo's in Orland. I've also been coming across a lot of other restaurants featuring gluten free pizza, and their pies have inspired me to create a series of gluten free pizza posts. Keep your eyes peeled for those. In the meantime, head out to Orland and indulge!

January 27, 2010

Free KIND bar at Starbucks

Next Friday, February 5th, Starbucks will be giving away free samples of KIND bars. These bars are gluten free and according to their website,
Our products are tested for gluten and meet FDA’s proposed requirement of
20ppm (0.002%) of gluten. Our manufacturing plant is dedicated gluten free and
has a strict allergen control program.
Everyone loves freebies, right?

January 24, 2010

Last Minute - Gluten Free Dining for Haiti

I know this is somewhat last minute, and I should have posted this sooner, but Francesca's Restaurants in Chicago and the Chicagoland area are donating 100% of their profits from their lunch and dinner sales to the Red Cross Haitian Relief Fund tomorrow, Monday, January 25th.

According to their website, on Monday January 25th, Francesca’s Restaurants will be joining the Chicago charge in supporting the relief efforts of the tragic earthquake in Haiti. All 19 Francesca’s locations across Chicagoland will be donating 100% of profits of both lunch and dinner to the Red Cross with the pledge of a minimum donation of $10,000 at the “Dine for Haiti” event.

If you didn't already know, Francesca's has a wonderful gluten free menu. From pastas to desserts, they are prepared to accommodate the gluten free diet. I couldn't find a better cause to eat for! Bon appétit!

January 22, 2010

i like sammiches

Ahh, yes. Sandwiches. That classic lunch staple. I grew up eating sandwiches. Salami and cheese with mustard squeezed on in the shape of a heart or smiley face used to be my favorite. After going gluten free, sandwiches pretty much became a thing of the past for me. (cue the weepy trombone...waahh, wahhh, waaahhhh)

Granted, these days the gluten free bread selection has become MUCH tastier. I have a few favorites, but what I was really feeling left out of was the new "wrap" craze. Heck, they're even throwing Big Macs in a wrap. Where's mine? I want one!

Yes, I know there are already some gluten free wraps out there and trust me, I've enjoyed them, but there was always that quality factor. As good as they were, they'd crack or get too crispy after warming them up. They weren't the easiest to eat.

When I heard of Sandwich Petals back in December, I quickly ordered a box. Scratch that, I emailed asking if I could find them in stores and received a prompt response from Raquelitas Tortillas telling me not yet, but shipping is FREE and all orders placed Mondays between midnight and noon are buy one get one free. Needless to say, I took advantage of that BOGO sale!

My petals arrived quickly, fresh as a daisy - no pun intended. Made from gluten free ancient grains, omega-3s, and prebiotics, these petals come in 3 flavors - Agave Grain, Spinach Garlic Pesto, and Chimayo Red Chile. They are super nutritious, with only 90 calories per petal. Some gluten free breads have more calories than I'm looking for, so I was happy about their nutrition values: 90 calories, 1 gram of fat, 3 grams of fiber, 4 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.

Luckily my order arrived at lunch time, so I quickly tore into a bag. I made a wrap with provolone cheese, leftover ham from Christmas dinner :), spinach, carrot sticks, and bleu cheese vinaigrette. I couldn't believe how well the petal held up. No splitting when I rolled it. No crumbling apart. And the taste?! It was love at first bite! Soft, fresh, and soooo flavorful. I couldn't decide which petal I loved the best, so it's a good thing each package comes with a dozen each.

The best part is that these do not need to be frozen or refrigerated. You can keep them at room temperature for up to a month. They do suggest you nuke them for about 30 seconds prior to using, which works out well. I even split up the packages and kept a bunch in my food cabinet at work. I've been eating these for lunch for the past 3 weeks and they have yet to get boring. If you're looking for an alternative to gluten free bread, give these guys a whirl - you'll love 'em!

January 18, 2010

Time to Celebrate

This pretty picture was made by Helen Dardik.

In January 2000, around 9:30am on a weekday morning, I sat eating a piece of cinnamon raisin toast. Being sick for years, I recently had been tested for celiac disease and was waiting for the results. The phone rang a few feet away from me and I remember trying to swallow the bite of toast I just took before I answered. It was Lorri, the nurse from my doctor's office, calling with my results. "Your test results indicate you have celiac disease." I could have cried; not tears of disappointment, but of joy. Someone had finally figured out what was wrong with me. I could finally start living my life again. I scribbled down the do's and don'ts she had for me, and after I hung up the phone, I picked up my plate of toast and walked over to the garbage can. I watched as it slid off the plate an onto a pile of used coffee grounds. Cinnamon toast was the last gluten meal I ever consumed.

It's hard to believe that was 10 years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, sometimes it feels like I've eating this way forever. Never once have I "cheated". It's soooo (emphasis on the "ohh") not worth it. There have been a few times I was unknowingly poisoned (thank you, Leona's waitress and your "it's not breading it's seasoning") but other than that, no, gluten free all the way, baby. Rarely I miss things I used to be able to eat. A few times I've had dreams where I've eaten gluten containing foods, only to wake up in a panic that I actually DID eat something glutenous and was going to soon be sick. I have never felt deprived, I just enjoyed what I could eat and carried on.

My friends, family, and co-workers have been incredibly supportive and understanding of my diet. My best friend would always eat gluten free with me (I'll have to have her guest blog our college pizza days...) and would even be the guinea pig for my baking experiments. Co-workers would always bake me gluten free goodies for my birthday. Party hosts always made sure there was something on their menu I could eat. It warms my heart when I get together with friends I haven't seen in awhile and they tell me, "Whenever I see something gluten free, I always think of you!" Since gluten free products are becoming more mainstream, I hear that a lot these days...it's good to know I'm always on someone's mind...cue Elvis.

A great big THANK YOU goes out to every single one of you on my followers list. I love sharing my gluten free findings, recipes, and whatever other nonsense I throw on here. I love all of your comments, they always make my day a little brighter!

January 10, 2010

Happy (Belated) New Year!

Well the new year is already underway and I've been a little MIA. Yikes! Sorry about that. I've been pretty busy with a bunch of life's little things and GFB as fallen to the wayside.

I've improved the event listings! Instead of a monthly blog post listing all of the upcoming events, I've added a calendar of events to the side over there --> which will have everything I can find at your fingertips. Easy-peasy, huh?

Hope everyone had a wonderful, gluten free holiday. I can't wait for all of the awesome new gluten free products, events, books, and discoveries to come in 2010!