That Philly’s best pasta chef is now serving wheat-free meals may seem a sign that End Times are nigh. But it’s really just smart networking by the Ambler-based National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, which is turning the city that gave birth to the Schmitter into ground zero for gluten-free food.
For celiac sufferers — about one in every 100 Americans, with diagnoses on the rise — just a smidgen of the protein gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) can lead to bloating and stomach troubles. For restaurateurs, that might mean two, three, maybe five customers a night struggling to avoid breads, pastas, sauces. Before, that is, the NFCA intervened, recruiting Jose Garces and Marc Vetri to participate in its certification program. Others have since followed: The nonprofit has trained more than 200 restaurants around the country, about half of them Philly spots. (In the ranks: Amada, Distrito, Vetri, Zahav, L’Oca and Lolita. And Philly’s first allergen and gluten-free bakery, Sweet Freedom, is slated to open this month on South Street.)
Chefs are surprisingly game for rearranging kitchens to avoid cross-contamination and, of course, for dreaming up gluten-free dishes. “I scratch my head because it seems like some people can’t eat anything — no wheat, no dairy,” says Vetri chef Brad Spence. “But we always make it work.” (He subs polenta and risotto for pasta.) “You know, we’re in the hospitality business.”