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Old-School Italian Neighborhood Welcomes a Feast of Sans Gluten

A small, but growing number of local businesses are catering to gluten sensitivities.

Facade illustration of Everybody Eats, a gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free and sesame-free bakery in Gowanus. Illustration by Tim Le.

Carroll Gardens is home to some of New York City’s best Italian eateries. Neighborhood staple Frankies 457 Spuntino is known for dishes such as its handmade cavatelli with hot sausage and browned sage butter. Last week, the restaurant opened a second location in Nashville, Tenn.

Monteleone’s and Caputo’s are iconic bakeries located one block away from each other on Court Street. Further down Court, Cremini’s serves its take on the traditional cuisine of Le Marche, an eastern Italian region. Lucali is a fashionable, and often star-studded, pizza joint where you can down a side of pepperoni chips and witness Charlie Puth propose to his girlfriend – if you can, first, get a table.

Pasta, pizza, bread, pastries – the neighborhood is teeming with delicious, respected cuisine. However, those who can’t stomach gluten might find that options are harder to come by. Gluten-free is, generally, not a priority for old-school neighborhood spots, but a growing number of local businesses are catering to those who want to partake, without the gluten protein.

Everybody Eats is a no-frills gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free and sesame-free bakery in Gowanus. It has been selling breads and baked goods since 2004, the year “Super Size Me” became a cultural phenomenon. Pedro Arroba co-founded the bakery, which turns 20 next year, with Bruce Bassman, who has since left the business.

A one-man show, Arroba ideates, makes and packages each menu item himself. He hails from Venezuela, where he was a mechanical engineer who owned an air conditioning and ventilation company. In 2003, he left his home country for New York City with no more than several hundred dollars to his name. He worked catering jobs, through which he met Bassman, with whom he started Everybody Eats in 2004.

Gluten sensitivity is on the rise in the U.S. Dr. Mark Hyman, one of the most prominent voices in the field of functional medicine, identified three factors contributing to an increase in gluten sensitivity in a podcast interview with Maggie Ward, the nutrition director at The UltraWellness Center, which Dr. Hyman founded.

First, the quality of wheat we’re eating has changed: Hybridized wheat is now a commonly grown crop touted for its durability, however, this cross-bred variety is composed of more complex wheat molecules that are harder to digest. Second, wheat crops are widely sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, which can cause damage to the gut. Third, wheat products often contain a preservative called calcium propionate, which, according to Dr. Hyman, is a toxin that can negatively impact the brain. He estimated that at least 30 percent of the population carries the gene for Celiac disease, though only one percent actually gets the disease.

Arroba of Everybody Eats discovered he had Celiac disease when he was 26 and has been gluten-free ever since. When he got to America, he began experimenting with gluten-free recipes and read books on how to bake. The same year he and Bassman opened Everybody Eats, they got their big business break.

“There was a gluten-free international fair at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown here in New York the year we opened this business,” Arroba said. “We provided the caterers of the Hilton Hotel with spinach ricotta ravioli for the whole party – thousands of people. And we provided the bread, the baguette. That was a big exposure right away. We started getting orders like crazy.”

Everybody Eats ships nationwide, though most of its customers live in the Tri-State area. Arroba also supplies bread and baked goods to restaurants throughout New York City, including the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park.

“Chefs, they care about good quality,” Arroba said. His bakery is located at 294 Third Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Whole Foods.

Arroba uses up to 17 ingredients in his breads to make up for the lack of gluten, which gives bread its spongy texture. Physically, he can make 120 to 140 loaves, or six to eight batches, of bread each day. Bagels are more labor-intensive; he can make no more than three batches per day.

He’s constantly listening to client feedback regarding his products, omitting allergens and amending taste and texture as requested.

“The latest change was sesame seeds,” he said. “There are a lot of intolerances and allergies to sesame, so I cut sesame from the challah, the deli rolls, the burger buns.”

Requests for vegan breads are trending, too. “I have vegan restaurants buying my vegan breads,” Arroba said. “I have multigrains, which are very popular, and a white bread that is vegan. A very good, 100-percent gluten-free, Italian restaurant buys a lot of bread from me. I developed a gluten-free, vegan baguette for them.”

In the Columbia Street Waterfront District, Brooklyn French Bakers makes gluten-free bread upon request on Wednesdays, though only if there are enough orders. Nelly Azambre, a former civil engineer and one of the bakery’s co-founders, likes to make at least six to eight loaves per batch to make the necessary cleaning and labor worthwhile.

“We were making gluten-free bread twice a week, but it's quite a long process because of all these different ingredients,” Azambre said. “We try to work as much as possible in a gluten-free space, but as you saw in our kitchen, we have flour everywhere. So we need to properly clean the table and all of the tools we’ll use to make the bread.”

She sources ingredients without additives where possible and uses rice flour, buckwheat flour, cornstarch and psyllium, a fiber that helps bind all of the ingredients together. She is also working on a “healthy cookie” that will incorporate gluten-free, vegan ingredients such as coconut oil, oats, almond flour and raisins, she said.

On Smith Street, Planted is a vegan, gluten-free and organic wellness café that also sells and re-pots houseplants and has a cold plunge and sauna in the backyard space. The café’s menu includes a variety of fruit smoothies and brunch and lunch items such as nachos with cashew cheese sauce, a jackfruit burger and a chili bowl with cashew sour cream.

Founder Loretta Gendville, who also owns Area Spa, opened Planted in 2018. On a recent visit to Planted, Gendville intimated that she and her team are reviewing the café menu for a potential revamp.

“I would like to be offering more salads and some new desserts,” she followed up via text.

When asked via text why she chose to make Planted gluten-free, vegan and organic, Gendville said, “The neighborhood needed it.”

“There are no cafés or restaurants that are vegan and gluten-free,” she said. “Many people prefer to be gluten-free and organic, so I am here.”

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