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Gluten-free menus enter food chain

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK (AP) - As a longtime chef in four-star restaurants, Joseph Pace had seen appreciative customers before. But nothing prepared him for the day that a well-dressed man walked into his Greenwich Village restaurant, ordered a pizza and a beer, and broke into tears.

That man, Pace recalls, had been diagnosed 10 years earlier with celiac disease - an incurable affliction that makes the body unable to take anything containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

The pizza and beer that Pace serves in his restaurant Risotteria, like many other items on his menu, are formulated with substitutes for wheat and barley, making his place a magnet for people who have celiac disease. The customer told Pace that he hadn't been able to enjoy a pizza and beer for a decade.

"This is what the restaurant business is," Pace said. "Making people happy."

Not every customer may be as effusive as that one, but Pace says he gets tremendous amounts of feedback from customers, which also helps him try out new recipes. His latest experiment is a pasta made from white beans. Rice, the main ingredient in risotto, is naturally gluten-free.

Founded just five years ago, Pace's restaurant quickly became known among people with celiac disease, who make heavy use of the Internet and e-mail to share restaurant recommendations.

Several major restaurant chains are also reaching out to the celiac community. Outback Steakhouse, P.F. Chang's and other restaurant companies offer menus of gluten-free dishes, and more are joining them.

Last month, Mitchell's Fish Market, a 13-restaurant chain based in Columbus, Ohio, introduced gluten-free menus, and six months ago Boston-based Legal Sea Foods did the same in its 31 restaurants. Richard Vellante, the executive chef for Legal Sea Foods, said his company adopted a gluten-free menu after hearing requests from customers and also noticing that competing restaurants were doing it.

For people with celiac disease, dining out can become a source of anxiety because of the risk of unintentionally eating something that contains gluten.

Many consult pocket-sized Clan Thompson food guides published by a Maine family which has six members living with the disease. The Thompsons started making the guides in 1997 and now sell nearly 5,000 a year. Mother Lani K. Thompson, who does not have celiac disease herself, says she's seen a "huge jump" in awareness of the disease in the past year and a half.

Kevin Seplowitz, a former computer security expert who developed the first commercially produced gluten-free beer, Bard's Tale, was diagnosed with celiac disease almost four years ago. He even quit going out to dinner, fearful of inadvertently eating something with gluten in it.

"I think the most underappreciated aspect of being diagnosed with a chronic disease is the psychological impact," Seplowitz said. "You have to be very diligent about it. If we order something and say, a barbecue sauce had beer in it and they say it didn't, we get sick."

Outback Steakhouse, a major casual dining chain with 760 restaurants, has offered a gluten-free menu since 1998, and its Tampa, Fla.-based parent company Outback Steakhouse Inc. has also adopted gluten-free menus at two of its other chains, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill.

"They're a very loyal following," Ben Novello, president of Outback Steakhouse, said of celiac patients. "The return goes beyond the sales that we generate from the loyal customers we get. It goes to goodwill."

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Wish I lived in Columbus, Boston or Tampa ... :P

There is a place with gluten-free-WF pies (cooked to order, about half an hour) near me but it plays a very loud sound track unfortunately ...

I read of several fish & chip shops that have a gluten-free-WF day a month and people drive several hundred miles for it ...

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