Philadelphia’s Great Gluten-Free Initiative

When you’re deciding where to go out for dinner — whether in your hometown or while traveling — what helps you choose a restaurant? There are a few terrific resources for the gluten intolerant, such as the international restaurant listings offered by Celiac Handbook and the American listings from the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program. There’s also Gluten-Free Maps, a site I discovered recently via Twitter. You might read blogs that are devoted to dealing with celiac disease. But there normally aren’t many mainstream sources that can help the gluten-averse.

That’s why I was so excited to hear about Philadelphia’s amazing initiative. Recently 28 restaurants in and around the city worked with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to complete its Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) program. This NFCA program trains restaurants in everything they need to know about preparing celiac-safe food, including issues such as avoiding cross-contamination and answering diners’ questions and concerns.

The list of participating Philadelphia restaurants is impressive. None of them is entirely gluten free, but a few can boast that a majority of menu items are safe for celiacs (at Distrito, a Mexican hotspot, 90% of the choices are gluten-free). The restaurants are a diverse bunch: there’s Italian (Vetri), Indian (Bindi), tapas (Bar Ferdinand), French (Cochon), and seafood (Little Fish), to name a few. The list includes high-end spots (such as The Palm, an elegant steakhouse), and affordable ones (like the Ugly American). When dining at one of the participating restaurants, it’s still a good idea to let the staff know in advance that you are gluten-intolerant, but once you’re at your table you should be able to relax and enjoy. Not many of the restaurants mention their gluten-free offerings on their own websites; hopefully they’ll update this soon (the Ugly American already has its gluten-free menu online; a few others, such as Cochon, mention that they can accommodate gluten-free diets).

It’s exciting that so many Philadelphia eateries would participate in the GREAT program. I’m also impressed with the fact that the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation is playing an important role in promoting this initiative. The tourism office is showcasing the city’s gluten-free offerings on its website; visitors can read about the restaurants, map their locations, and check out what attractions are nearby. It’s a smart and savvy move, and I wonder how long it will take other cities to catch up.

For more information about gluten-free dining in Philly, visit

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I mentioned above that I’d found a new resource via Twitter. I joined a couple of weeks ago, and I’m finding it valuable. If you’re on Twitter, I hope you’ll follow me there at or @hilarydavidson.

The Gluten-Free Guidebook’s First Year

On March 15th, the Gluten-Free Guidebook marked its first anniversary. I’m proud of what’s been created here in the past year. There’s a rich archive of reports about restaurants, hotels, and shops in countries such as Spain, Peru, and Turkey; there’s also plenty of food for thought about dining in North America, from Toronto to San Francisco. Readers have shared information about their travels (and hometowns), making it easier for anyone who follows in their footsteps. (If you’re planning to visit Buenos Aires, Las Vegas, Amman, or Hawaii, read these reports first.) Gluten-free gurus Shauna James Ahern and Vanessa Maltin have let us in on some of their favorite finds on the road. We have a Facebook group to make it easier for readers to connect. I wanted to share a few important things that I’ve learned from writing this blog over the past year:

  1. Never be shy about asking for help: There are so many groups and individuals who are ready — even eager — to help navigate the gluten minefield that travelers face. Before going to a new city or country, locate a celiac awareness group for the area (you’ll find them via Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Association of European Coeliac Societies). Even if the information they have on their website isn’t in your language, e-mail them for advice. If they can, they will help you out.
  2. Trust, but verify: Asking whether a dish has gluten in it is is sometimes not enough. Restaurant staff might forget — or not realize — that a dish has a little flour in it. I’ve run into this problem at home in New York as well as on the road. When in doubt, I ask the staff to tell me what ingredients are in the dish. At one very swanky French bistro in Manhattan, the restaurant manager was stunned when the chef told her that there was wheat flour in almost everything. That same manager had assured me that most of their dishes were safe for me just a few minutes earlier.
  3. Always have celiac information cards handy: I know that people have different preferences as to which cards to use (there are several free options, which you can read about in this post; I like the ones from Celiac Travel). These make travel so much easier — and safer — for celiacs. Be sure to print extra cards, since some invariably get stained or destroyed as you travel. Having extras means you can hand them out to other travelers, too. When I was at a remote lodge in Peru’s Colca Canyon, I met a woman from South Africa whose sister has celiac disease, and she was thrilled to be able to take the card (and the name of the site it was from) back to her.
  4. Have a backup plan: Travel is all about the spirit of adventure — trying new things, discovering new tastes, seeing places you dreamed about. Having celiac disease doesn’t bar you from any of that, but it means you always need to keep the worst-case scenario in mind, because you may find yourself stuck in transit with no gluten-free options available to you. This happened to me on the train from Machu Picchu to Cusco. It was a four-hour ride after a long day of exploring (I’d gotten up before dawn so I could watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu). There was food available for sale on the train — a choice of sandwiches. Fortunately I had gluten-free protein bars and trail mix to tide me over.

Please keep your gluten-free tips and reports coming. I’m excited to see what the next year will bring.

Dining Gluten-Free With Friends in Istanbul

Last weekend I spent some time with a friend I haven’t seen in months. While we were catching up, she asked about my trip to Turkey last November. I told her about the astonishing ancient cities I saw — Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Hierapolis, Pergamum — and about the beauty and history of Istanbul. But I found myself talking even more about Oya Özden and her family.

Oya is the founder of the Living With Celiac Association of Turkey. I contacted her organization before my trip, and she e-mailed me a celiac disease information card, written in Turkish, that I could show to chefs and other restaurant staff. She also gave me some general guidelines about dining in Turkey (which you can read in this post). While I was in Selçuk, she e-mailed me to ask where I was staying in Istanbul. I told her it was the Erguvan, a boutique hotel in the Sultanahmet district that’s a short walk from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The next day, Oya e-mailed to say that she had contacted the hotel about my diet. I appreciated her help, but I didn’t realize how much Oya had done for me until I arrived in Istanbul. The staff at the Erguvan actually baked gluten-free pastries for my breakfast, from a recipe provided by Oya. (This was, I should add, in addition to the impressive breakfast buffet at the hotel, which already included gluten-free items such as boiled eggs, fresh fruit, dried fruit, and several types of cheese.)

Oya also invited my husband and me to have dinner with her, her husband, Hasan, and their daughter, Nil. (Oya and Nil are pictured above, with me.) They took us to a banquet hall on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The dining room was full of celebrations (I counted one wedding, one 45th wedding anniversary, and one high-school reunion). There was no set menu; instead Oya had made special arrangements in advance (her celiac support group has met at the banquet hall in the past). For us, the kitchen staff baked gluten-free pide, a substantial bread that looks like a giant waffle; I’d seen it on menus throughout my trip, but this was the first time I was able to try it. There were also appetizers that consisted of a wafer-thin gluten-free bread topped with lamb, parsley, and spices. Oya had arranged for gluten-free mezes, which included hot peppers, yogurt seasoned with garlic, rice-stuffed vegetables, a hot tomato sauce, and a dish of leeks and carrots, all of which were delicious. The main course was lamb, and for dessert there were several treats, including dates filled with cheese. I also tried raki, Turkey’s unofficial national drink, for the first time at dinner (similar to ouzo but not sweet). It was a fabulous evening from start to finish, partly because of the great food but mostly because of the wonderful company.

I realized at dinner that Oya is an incredible activist. After being diagnosed with celiac disease, she went on to form a national organization in a country where the disease is not well known. In addition to providing information and support to adult celiacs, she created a booklet for children to help them understand the disorder and the gluten-free diet (it’s available as a printed booklet as well as on the organization’s website). Oya is also in touch with her counterparts in other European countries and has lobbied Turkey’s government to provide support for celiacs. In Turkey, celiacs now get a government subsidy for certain gluten-free provisions every month. (In North America, I’m grateful just to see celiac-safe products on store shelves, even if they are priced sky high.)

Meeting Oya reinforced for me how important it is for the gluten-intolerant to share information and advice. It also made for the most memorable night of my trip. Thanks again, Oya, Hasan, and Nil!

Erguvan Hotel [address] Aksakal Cad. No: 3, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey [tel] +90 212 4582784 [fax] +90 212 4582788 [e-mail] [web]

A Gluten-Free Gem in New York’s West Village

New Yorkers are notorious for their impatience, but I think that it’s mostly a myth. I’ve become a more patient person since moving here seven-and-a-half years ago, though it hasn’t happened by choice. New Yorkers are forced to wait in line for just about everything. If you’ve ever visited the Trader Joe’s supermarket on East 14th Street, you know what I mean (the line to check out wraps around the entire store and can take 45 minutes on a bad day). And while I love Risotteria, there’s a reason I haven’t written about it before: having dinner there requires patience.

Risotteria is in the West Village, a few blocks from Washington Square Park. It describes itself as one of the most famous gluten-free restaurants in America, and I don’t doubt that. It’s perpetually mobbed, and since you can basically count the number of seats on your fingers and toes, demand consistently outpaces supply. Even in this economic downturn, Risotteria keeps packing them in — not a surprise when you factor in its very reasonable prices for its excellent cooking. Service is incredibly swift but also quite sweet. Here’s the bad part: Risotteria doesn’t do reservations. That means you wait for your table with everybody else, either in the tiny vestibule or out front on Bleecker Street, where there’s a bench. When the wait gets extremely long, sometimes the waitstaff comes outside with gluten-free breadsticks, guaranteeing that you’ll hang around.

Not everything on the menu is gluten-free, but the many celiac-safe options — including risotto, pizza, and panini — are clearly marked, as are the choices for vegetarians (plentiful) and the lactose-intolerant (slim pickings). There is nothing I’ve tried in my many visits here that I haven’t loved. The gluten-free Caesar salad is a favorite (but so is the spinach salad with goat cheese and roasted peppers). The risotto dishes are irresistible to me (I usually choose them over pizza, a fact that shocks me). I love the carnaroli risotto with roasted chicken, porcini mushrooms, and pine nuts; my husband loves a spicier risotto with shrimp, hot peppers, and mozzarella. And every person I’ve dined with at Risotteria has been wild about the desserts, all of which are gluten-free (don’t get me started on the subject of the “Fudgie,” two thick chocolate-chip cookies with chocolate fudge in-between).

That’s the secret about Risotteria. I’ve met others with celiac disease while dining there (the tables are so close together that mingling is common), but none of the people I’ve dined with at Risotteria are gluten-intolerant. They are willing to put up with the long wait because the food is that good. You can use your wait-list time to explore the neighborhood. Bleecker is filled with interesting shops, the excellent Partners & Crime bookstore is a few blocks away, and the Village boasts stunning architecture and charming streets. Just remember to be patient.

Risotteria [address] 270 Bleecker Street (between Sixth Avenue & Seventh Avenue), New York, NY [tel] 212-924-6664 [web]