Saturday, March 6, 2010

Interview with Joseph Pace, owner of gluten-free friendly Risotteria in New York City

Not long ago, I realized that one of my very favorite all-time restaurants is actually known for being gluten-free! I never realized this before since I just loved going there, because they serve my ultimate comfort food, risotto. That was what mattered to me. If there was only one meal I could eat for the rest of my life, it would risotto, and Risotteria in New York City has always been a stop whenever I am in town. Risotteria opened in early 1999, and has been a popular stop for gluten-free diners and fans of good food alike, for over a decade.

In addition to risotto, Risotteria also serves gluten-free pizza, salad, panini, breadsticks and pasta. Pasta is served on Tuesdays. As their web site states they are gluten-free every hour or every day. To top off this already impressive list, Risotteria has mastered the art of baking gluten-free treats.

I had the pleasure of being able to try my all-time favorite, a real New York black and white cookie, a linzer cookie, a brownie, a winkie, which is like a gluten-free version of a Twinkie, an orio, which is like a gluten-free cakey version of an Oreo cookie, and chocolate chip cookies, which I baked from a mix. I was blown away. Each of these items tasted amazing, and even better than their gluten-filled counterparts. The black and white cookie tasted just like a proper black and white cookies should taste, with a perfect cakey texture and frosting. The linzer was another favorite, but it is really difficult to choose one over another, because they were all absolutely delicious, and this is even after 2 days shipping. The chocolate chip cookie mix made amazing, fluffy chocolate chip cookies and held together perfectly. These cookies did not last long in our house.

Risotteria has recently introduced new gluten-free hamburger/sandwich rolls and ciabatta bread. Best of all, you can wash it all down with a gluten-free beer.

Most of their items, pre-made and mixes and available by mail order throughout the continental US.
Joseph Pace is the genius behind this wonderful restaurant, and I was lucky enough to be able to ask him some questions about Risotteria and his commitment to the gluten-free community.

Q - What is your background?

A - 35 years involved in food from cleaning up a butcher shop at 15-years old to being a chef at Petrossian’s flagship restaurant in NYC. I spent six years training at the 4-star level in NYC as well as stages in Europe and Asia.

Q - Where were you before Risotteria?

A - I spent several years as chef/partner in two modern cuisine destination restaurants in NYC.

Q - What was behind your idea to open a restaurant centered on risotto?

A - I was in Milan back in the early-90s and witnessed an odd phenomenon, after the clubs let out, little stalls would open up serving risotto to the club kids. Kind of like a diner at 4am in NYC, the kids are tanked and risotto absorbs the booze in your belly. The stalls only made one type of risotto and when it was gone they would start another. So I thought this would be great in NYC, but one type would never fly in this city, so I started working on a way to quickly produce high quality risotti of many varieties. Of course I was still working as a chef, so nightly I would feature a risotto and started working the kinks out. After about four years I had it.

Q - How long after you opened Risotteria did you decide to bring gluten-free options to your restaurant?

A - We originally would open at 7pm and stay till 5am, refer back to Milan’s club kids. That lasted a month until I was worn out, apparently I had aged past the 1am mark. So we began regular hours, it wasn’t more than six months before I began hearing from customers that they are here for the rice because its gluten-free, could I make a dessert so their meals would be complete. Well gluten-free had no meaning to me and it was only a few requests so it went unheeded.

Long story short, I got a call from Bette Hagman who was then the president of the GF chapter of NYC asking if I knew about celiac and gluten. My response was that a few people had mentioned it but I’m totally in the dark, she asked if I would be NYC's first restaurant to be gluten-free. My response was "as long as it doesn’t take more than a half hour I’m in." As you could imagine I was kind of beat up from four years planning the menu and designing the floor plan, while working as a full time chef. Four months construction, the original hours and the overwhelming response we got from the press and the public our first few months. I was swamped! Well this started the most extensive research and product development I had ever done. Within our first year we had gluten-free cookies and pizza, the next nine years have seen products from Italian breads, layer cakes, twinkies, hamburger rolls, slice and bake cookies, cupcakes all freshly baked as well as frozen goods i.e. pizzas, eggplant parmesan, microwaveable risotti, sauces, soups and dry mixes, kind of the gluten-free Betty Crocker type stuff...etc. etc. All gluten-free. The item we were most famous for, our breadsticks, that took a little bit of time too. Some six months and hundreds of pounds of trial and error flour blending, dough mixing, three tabletop Kitchen Aid machines and one Hobart floor mixer that we outgrew in a month, which was good timing as the motor was fried from our abuse.

Q - Are you gluten-free yourself, or do you have celiac in your family?

A - No, it’s all customer-driven, we have comment cards and I read them all. Some of these ideas came directly from customer’s lips or via our comment cards. The rest I come up with.

Q - I’m sure people must be so grateful for your gift to the gluten-free community, what reaction do you usually get from people who visit your restaurant?

A - I had a grown man, a Wall Street type, cry when he tasted our pizza, it had been so long since he had a slice and a beer, he was moved to tears.

Q - Have you always made your own flours and baked goods from scratch?

A - Yes, everything. It’s my background, 4-star training, we do it all.

Q - How long did it take you to come up with flour blend with results that you were happy with?

A - We’re still working on reformulating our flours, as I type this we’re proofing a new dough, an improvement on our focaccia bread. Quality is dynamic and must be evaluated daily. We can always do better.

Our latest item in December was a linzer cookie; in 2009 we probably introduced eight new desserts, fudges, oreos, banana bread, marble pound cake, and black and white cookies. We do cream-filled sponge cakes like our own winkie...wink wink…twinkie-like.

Our latest will be a burger bun to mimic the hard rolls of days past. A NYC staple, a crunchy Italian bread roll suitable for burgers, egg on a roll, buttered rolls -- we ate these for breakfast when I was in high school. Of course in modern times eating 1/4 pound of butter on a roll is frowned upon.

(Since our conversation, the new ciabatta bread and sandwich rolls have been introduced, which Joseph claims are his best work to date.)

Q - Do you sell to retailers, or only direct?

A - No, we can’t produce enough for us here so we mail order on a very limited basis.

Q - Do you continue to bake gluten-filled baked goods (cookies, desserts, etc…) as well?

A - Everything we bake is gluten-free; we never did make wheat flour anything in the store. Our wheat-based bread products are made off-premises at a bakery we contract.

Q - Do you keep dedicated areas in the kitchen for the gluten-free items? For storing the flours? Do you cook the pizzas in separate areas in the oven?

A - Separate everything, equipment from ovens to hand tools, the non-gluten-free stuff is the minority so it’s kept secluded. We have never had loose wheat flour in the place, so even in the beginning there was no airborne wheat dust.

Q - How do you educate the staff on gluten-free eating and the dangers of cross-contamination?

A - It’s an on-going task, our training book, testing and weekly meetings. All my cooks have been with me since the onset so they’re 100% aware, hell they have been part of the process just like I have. The waitstaff changes as is their nature and are schooled before they are let loose on the public.

Q - Do you still love risotto, or do you ever get tired of it?

A - Personally I go in cycles generally eating a lot of whatever we are working on for evaluation, but I’m good for a least 4-5 bowls of rice a week. I grew up eating risotto; it’s my comfort food. I’m a Pace we’re 800 strong in NYC all from two brothers who came over from Bologna in 1890.

Q - Do you have any plans to expand?

A - Sure do, stay tuned.

Risotteria is located at 270 Bleecker Street, NY, NY, from noon – 11pm, 7 days a week. 212.924.6664. You can eat in, take-out or order delivery. For mail orders visit their online cataloge.

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