Against the Grain: Gluten-Free Pizza Goes Mainstream

Some winners, some losers in the wheat-free pizza realm

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In the interest of fairness, most critics prefer to order only plain margherita pies when evaluating a pizzeria. Sticking to the basic elements helps ensure a level playing field when judging the overall goodness of one pizza versus another.

    At least in most cases.

    On a recent night at Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza in Penn Quarter, however, I can’t help but notice the glaring discrepancies between the pizza in front of me and the one at the next table. Both share the same traditional toppings. But, on appearances alone, the pies are strikingly dissimilar. My neighbor’s crust is lightly charred, with bready bubbles along the edges. You can hear a soft crackling when he bends it in half to take a bite. It has all the qualities diners have come to expect in a town saturated with wood-fired ovens.

    Mine, on the other hand, is flat and flimsy, with an almost spongy texture. There are no bubbles to see, and no crunch to hear. You’d be forgiven for suspecting it was sourced from an entirely different eatery.

    The real story is somewhat different. My neighbor’s pie is made with the traditional wheat-based dough. Mine, meanwhile, is built upon a wheatless, gluten-free crust.

    Hawking a markedly inferior product might sound like a faux pas in the District’s enduring artisanal pizza world, where devotees preach about serving only top-notch ingredients and meeting stringent Italian authenticity standards.

    But, for some people, this is progress.

    I largely missed out on the early days of D.C.’s pizza renaissance, when Pizzeria Paradiso was beginning to expand its wood-burning reach. My go-to dining companion, the missus, is gluten intolerant. For those still unfamiliar with the term, gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains that can cause rather unpleasant auto-immune reactions for certain people.

    Like most folks with gluten issues, my wife originally had no idea what was causing her such intense stomach cramps after meals. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Through her own research, she stumbled on the gluten thing.

    Cutting bread and other wheat products from her diet eliminated the pain. But easing her suffering severely limited our dining-out agenda. Pizza, for the most part, was a goner.

    For a long time, we knew of only one pizzeria that catered to the wheatless, a tiny place called Risotteria that happened to be about 225 miles away in New York’s Greenwich Village. We made regular pilgrimages and substantially narrowed the distance between home and our regular pizza fix by relocating there in 2006.

    When I returned to D.C. last year, I found a food scene that had undergone some significant changes -- including in the wheat-avoidance department. And it’s not just specialty dietetic joints, either: At least half a dozen mainstream, up-market D.C. pizzerias currently carry gluten-free crusts.

    It’s become a big selling point for some places, which might otherwise miss an entire demographic of new customers, the gluten-adverse as well as those who dine with them. Some operators, including the Homemade Pizza Co., make the gluten-free component a prominent feature in storefront advertisements like the ones at its 14th Street NW store.

    From a critic’s standpoint, none of these pies will ever earn official Denominazione di Origine Controllata recognition -- even at places like Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, one of the local temples of highbrow pies, or District of Pi, a new arrival from St. Louis with similarly highfalutin’ pizza ambitions.

    “It’s different than a real pizza, but it’s not a negative experience,” says Jeffrey Silverman, vice president of Still Riding Pizza, a Bridgeport, Conn. company that supplies gluten-free crusts to a number of District eateries, including Ella’s, Comet Ping Pong, and Open City. Each eatery sells the crusts at an extra charge, ranging from $2 at Ella’s to $5 at Comet, above the price of a regular pizza.

    Silverman’s wife, Liz, developed the recipe -- a blend of bean, rice and tapioca flours, mixed with xantham gum, egg, sugar, and cider vinegar, among other things -- after she and their children were diagnosed with celiac disease. The family business now sells wheatless crusts to more than 800 restaurants nationwide. “It’s a good business,” he says.

    But Silverman’s dough takes on startlingly different forms after passing through the various D.C. ovens operated by his customers.

    At Ella’s, it’s soggy and depressing. At Open City, though, it’s almost as crisp as the wheat-lovers’ pizza, albeit a frozen variety thereof. For best results, Silverman recommends that patrons request pies well-done; he advises restaurants to cook the crusts with sauce for a few minutes before adding cheese.

    Nonetheless, in a city overrun with pie-slingers, the gluten-free niche offers a competitive advantage.

    Gluten-Free Pizza Goes Mainstream in D.C.

    “It helps our bottom line,” says Zach Current, a partner at D.C.’s newly opened Fuel Pizza, a North Carolina-based chain that began offering gluten-free crusts two years ago. “We went from selling 50 [gluten-free pies] a week at eight cafes to selling 300 a week,” Current says.

    Fuel’s gluten-free offering, made with tapioca, sorghum, amaranth and teff, takes on a doughy, almost crepe-like texture.

    Current was initially skeptical when suppliers began hawking wheatless crusts at industry trade shows. But, he says, as customers began requesting the stuff and friends began eschewing pizza altogether because of their own dietary conditions, it simply made sense. “Obviously, if it’s going to affect our business, you’re going to get a little more dialed in,” he says.

    In the beginning, quality control was a big concern. Regular pizzas are made from scratch at the company’s various locations. The gluten-free crusts, however, come pre-made. “I probably tried 30 different products from around the country before finding the right one,” Current says. He won’t name his supplier for competitive reasons.

    Fuel claims to go to great lengths to avoid cross-contamination with its wheat dough. Gluten-free crusts are made in a separate area; the pies are placed in the oven atop parchment paper to prevent contact with regular flour.

    But even those steps don’t completely eliminate risk: “If you are super-sensitive, we can’t recommend that you even come in our restaurant because there’s two pounds of flour probably just floating around,” he says.

    Still, the wheat-averse have plenty of options. Even Pizzeria Paradiso, which first foisted the Neapolitan pizza fetish on Washington, is developing its own wheatless dough.

    “When we started out 20 years ago, we had white crust and milk cheese,” chef-owner Ruth Gresser says. “We have changed based on customer interest over the years. We now have a vegan cheese. We now have a whole wheat crust. We’ve always been a place where people could create their own meal based on their dietary restrictions. In my mind, [the gluten-free option] sort of fits with the create-your-own mentality.”

    The chain recently hosted a taste-test, but hasn’t rolled out its product quite yet. “We decided that we still had a little work to do,” says Gresser, whose own recipe features a blend of brown rice, sorghum and buckwheat flours. “For me, the buckwheat gives it a hearty, rustic, more like a whole-wheat, whole-grain flavor,” she says. Gresser hopes to launch the gluten-free option at Paradiso’s Alexandria location around mid-February.

    “I feel like when my staff tastes it and says, ‘Oh, I would eat that,’ instead of ‘Yeah, it’s OK,’ that’s a good sign,” she says. “I mean, will people choose to have this crust over our regular crust? I don’t know that the non-gluten-free will do that. But I think it makes a nice pizza.”

    Photos by Darrow Montgomery

    Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0404

    District of Pi, 910 F St. NW, (202) 393-5484

    Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, 901 F St. NW, (202) 638-3434

    Fuel Pizza, 1606 K St. NW, (202) 659-3835

    Open City, 2331 Calvert St. NW, (202) 332-2331

    Pete’s Apizza, 1400 Irving St. NW, (202) 332-7383, and 4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 237-7383

    Pizzeria Paradiso, 3282 M St. NW, (202) 337-1245, 2003 P St. NW, (202) 223-1245, and 124 King St., Alexandria, (703) 837-1245

    Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

    Against the Grain: Gluten-Free Pizza Goes Mainstream in D.C. was originally published by Washington City Paper on Feb. 1, 2012.