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!


Chandice said...

That looks so yummy!

GF Gidget said...

Chicago has some of the best GF restaurants!

Carly said...

Are you going to try Aurelio's?

Betsy said...

I'm not sure if they deserve another chance. Perhaps another location. If I do decide on the Orland/Tinley one, I'll have to channel my inner 1980s-ness to fit in with the atmosphere.

Marsha @ Green Mountain at Fox Run said...

I think I'm going to have to come to Chicago just to try this restaurant!!

Anonymous said...

I heard Aurelio's in TP had GF pizza. I called and spoke with the owner who did not leave me wanting to go there. They buy the crusts from someone, prepare the pizzas right next to everything else. He said they do use separate utensils for them, but then they stick them in the same oven that the use for regular pizzas - not on pans. When I asked about cross-contamination, he was very beligerant saying that no one had ever complained that they had gotten sick. He said they always tell people that order the GF pizza about cooking them in the same oven as the regular ones. So I decided to test them on it. A couple days later, I called and said I wanted to order a GF pizza for carryout. They never said a thing about it. At the end, I told them I changed my mind and did not want it.

Also, when my granddaughter was first diagnosed, they went to an Olive Garden restaurant. They asked about a GF menu and the waiter did not know what they were talking about. He said he could tell the kitchen to dip her soup out so there were no noodles in her bowl. Finally a manager came out and knew more about what they needed. She got GF food, but they did not have and GF pasta.

Bonnie said...

We took our granddaughter to Palermo's for a gluten-free based on this post. Nice place, lots of GF choices. She ordered a GF chicken dish and my husband ordered a similar dish not GF. Everything looked and smelled great. We started eating and after several bites, the waitress came running (literally)thru the restaurant saying she had mixed up the plates, so my granddaughter was eating my husband's meal. It sure would be nice if they would follow in PF Chang's idea to use different plates for the GF meals. I suggested that as we left but have not beeb back there.

Bonnie said...

We took our celiac granddaughter to Palermo's. Nice place, nice atmosphere. She ordered a GF chicken dish and my husband ordered a similar non GF chicken dish. It was brought to the table and everything looked delicious and smelled wonderful. After a few bites, the waitress came running (literally) thru the restaurant saying "stop eating that". She had mixed up the dinners, even tho as she was putting the plates down, she had said "GF". It really took the enjoyment out of the meal, knowing my granddaughter had already eaten some of the meal. I suggested they follow in PF Chang's footsteps and use different colored dishes for their GF meals.
We have not been back, even tho the pizza looked great.

Betsy said...

Bonnie, I'm so sorry to hear about your experience! After the mix-up, you should have suggested that they plate the gluten free dishes on specific plates like PF Chang's does.