A Gluten-Free Dinner with Mario Batali

Ok, so I didn’t actually dine with the Italian Chef and Food Network star, but his presence was felt at a delightful gluten-free dinner at Otto. The lovely, Allergic Girl, organized a gluten-free “bloggy” dinner recently, complete with gluten-free pasta, salads, sides and dessert. It was a practically perfect evening of conversation and food. AG and I were joined by Kelly of the CeliacChicks, and occasional blogger Jennifer.

Located on 8th Street and Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square Park, Otto is the type of restaurant I would normally avoid. A focus on pizza, pasta and Panini just doesn’t seem amenable to a gluten-free meal, so why put myself through it? When I arrived at the restaurant, I did get a little spooked. It was relatively early on a Thursday night but the place was buzzing. Crowded and noisy, how could my strict food needs possible be met? Dining out is always risky, so why take a chance when the odds seem stacked against me?

Well, I put my trust in the incredible Allergic Girl. AG had arranged the dinner after an exchange with Chris, the general manger, outlined on her blog. Before our dinner, AG met with Chris and the chef to outline exactly what was needed to accommodate gluten-free customers. Even with a jam-packed dining room and what must be a hectic kitchen, I knew that the staff was educated and that Chris wanted to make sure they got it right.

Chris was a gracious host, guiding us through the menu, giving recommendations for the multiple food allergies at the table. (I was lucky to just be limited by gluten!) There were so many choices - I was restricted only by the inadequate capacity of my tummy.

I started with a trio of vegetables. The “funghi misti” or mixed mushrooms were marinated and seasoned beautifully. Eggplant Caponatina is one of their specialties. It was on-par with the homemade versions I enjoyed in Italy; a perfect balance of sweet and savory. The Summer Squash with pecorino was a light and refreshing, a nice contrast to the other slightly heavier dishes.

I was tempted by the cucumber and fennel salad Kelly ordered.

Eating with your eyes is easy when you see Jennifer’s arugula and cherry tomato salad.

AG’s red onion salad looked a little heavy on the onions for my palate but she gave it thumbs up.

During my years as a gluten glutton, I rarely ordered pasta in restaurants. Even with the most elegant presentation, it was usually something I felt I could prepare relatively easily at home or it wouldn’t live up to the pasta dishes I ate constantly in Italy. This, however, was a special occasion; I was in Mario’s domain. I was given the opportunity to select from multiple preparations and TWO different types of gluten-free pasta. Leaving any fat or calorie concerns at the door, I immediately gravitated to the Pasta alla Carbonara. Rich with cream, bacon, egg and cheese, it’s one of my all-time favorites. This version didn’t disappoint, with a surprising peppery accent to balance the cream.

AG ordered a special preparation not even on the menu. La Capricciosa - prosciutto and pancetta ground up together and then cooked with caramelized red onions in a tomato sauce.

Kelly ordered the pasta with mussels. Jennifer also went off the menu with a black pepper and cheese topped penne (we all went with the Tinkayada over the Bionaturae gluten-free pasta).

When time came to look at the dessert menu, I was intrigued by the gelato flavors. A Southern Italian specialty, I enjoyed many Ricotta gelati topped with cinnamon during my summer in Ragusa. However, I had never tried olive oil or tarragon flavored gelato. I selected a trio: Olive Oil, Sweet Corn and Ricotta. The Olive Oil gelato was absolutely outstanding. Using a vanilla base and flavored with the finest Italian olive oil, it was smooth, sweet, with a hint of caramel. Kelly had the tangerine sorbetto, a tad healthier than my ice cream.

After an amazing dinner the question still remained, why exactly are they working so hard to help us eat safely? Chris was happy to explain. After being unable to accommodate a gluten-free request at Babbo earlier this year, Mario sent an edict to all of his chefs and managers, insisting that they have gluten-free pasta available in all of his restaurants. (Also of note, on a recent episode of Iron Chef, Mario asked if any of the judges had peanut allergies. It was the first time I had ever seen one of the chefs ask about food sensitivities.) Thank you Mario! I have yet to eat at the infamous and impossible-to-get-a-reservation Babbo, but I know I will enjoy a tremendous gluten-free meal when I do.

A big thanks also go to Otto’s manager, Chris, who did everything in his power to make the evening as stress and worry-free as possible. With only one minor (but easily identifiable) slip-up, I was impressed. For those looking for more than pizza and pasta, Otto offers an extensive selection of wines and on my next trip I will order one of their artisanal cheese plates with some of their smoked and cured meats. To top it all off, their prices are reasonable, in fact cheap for Manhattan. What more could a gluten-free girl want?

Otto Enoteca and Pizzeria 1 5th Ave, New York, New York 10003 At 8th St Phone: 212-995-9559


Laura Hepp said...

you have just made my night!

Sea said...

This sounds like a fabulous dinner. As always, I'm wildly jealous- if only I lived in NY!
-Sea at www.bookofyum.com

Anonymous said...

I know where I'm eating next time I'm in the city! Thanks for the great photos and the review.

Karen said...

Oooo, next time I am in NY, I really want to check this place out! That is so nice the restaurant took the extra effort for your dinner party.


B. said...

That onion salad frightens me.

Dan Ruth said...

Wow, all the GF dining I'm reading about in NYC may prompt me to move from California! Yes, I love food that much.w

Miki said...

My name is Miki and I own Slice, the perfect food, an all-natural and organic pizza place on Manhattan's upper east side. (2nd ave btwn 73rd/74th st)
We offer a gluten-free pizza and a ton of Celiacs come and eat here...
I wanted to see if you can put us on your map for gluten-free eats in NYC.
Check out my website: www.sliceperfect.com