Food allergies rise and fall in prominence, and restaurants have to keep up with them. The big one at the moment? Gluten. There are folks who have a legitimate problem digesting gluten, and many other folks who have had problems all along that have only recently been diagnosed, what with the attention gluten allergies/intolerances and Celiac disease have gotten in the media recently. In response, it seems like every other pizza joint (and every vegan restaurant) is now offering gluten-free menu choices, and a number of gluten-free pasta brands have hit supermarket shelves.
Still, I've yet to be impressed with them. Without gluten, bread and pasta simply don't taste right, right?
So I was more than a bit skeptical when Del Posto Chef Mark Ladner emailed me a few weeks back claiming, "We have perfected a fresh gluten free pasta recipe and now offer every single one of our pastas in a gluten-free version."
Perfect? Really? This I had to try for myself.
My original response to the email was a lengthy instruction manual on how to properly hold a double-blind tasting with a triangle test to determine just whether or not there really was no difference in the two products.
Mark quickly recanted, saying that while we'd be able to tell the difference, their goal is to "provide something delicious" to gluten-intolerant guests.
Going into the tasting, which Ed and I performed blind, my questions were twofold: given that we could taste a difference between the two, would we be able to tell which is which? And given that fact, had we been served the gluten-free version without any knowledge of the regular version, would we feel something is amiss?
Pasta #1: Luna Piena with Castelmagno and White Truffle Butter
Our taste test started out with a bang right out of the gate. Two identical-looking plates of pasta were brought before us, the heady aroma of white truffles leaving a near-visible scent trail wafting from the kitchen doors through the dining room.
The dish is sort of a free-form raviolo, really, with a thin, thin layer of mild, creamy Castelmagno cheese sandwiched between two full-moons of pasta coated with a truffle butter emulsion, and insanely delicious (It had better be, for the $20 supplement on top of the fixed price menu).
I plowed into mine, lost in the aroma of truffles, feeling the slight bite of the pasta between my teeth, and noting the way the sauce clung to its microscopically pitted surface. For a good 15 seconds, the taste test entirely fell out of my mind, as did the plate in front of Ed. This is NOT the kind of date where we share, I said to myself, before snapping back.
We traded plates and tasted again.
I was shocked. The first plate, the one I'd scarfed down without breathing, was definitely the gluten-free version, but it was only after tasting the second that I realized it. It had been missing the ever-so-slight chew and tug, the minute stretch of a truly great pasta.
Both plates were licked clean.
Pasta #2: Pumpkin Cappellacci with Brown Butter and Biscotti
Next up was the Pumpkin Cappellacci. This time, knowing what to look for, identifying which pasta I had tasted before comparing the two was easier. I got the regular pasta first. I could tell by the way the filling—a very soft and rich pumpkin purée—stretched the walls of the wrapper by a few millimeters before bursting out between my teeth. There are few pasta-makers in the city who accomplish this level of greatness with their dough. Ladner and his Chef di Cucina Tony Scotto are two of them. Michael White comes to mind. Not many others.
With the gluten-free version, while the flavor was identical, it didn't have quite the same burst-in-your-mouth stretchiness, though I'd posit that Del Posto's gluten-free pasta is better than 95% of the regular pasta in the city, easily.
Pasta #3: Veal Agnolotti with Parsnip, Espresso, and Grana Padano
Another stuffed pasta, and another similar result—the regular pasta was just a hair stretchier than the gluten-free—though this time, with so much going on on the plate—parsnip purée, espresso powder, a cheesy broth—and a much firmer spiced veal filling, the differences were not nearly as noticeable.
Pasta #4: Yesterday's 100 Layer Lasagne alla Piastra
The final comparison we did, and the most successful. As a baked pasta dish, lasagne is pretty much always cooked slightly past al dente, and once that difference in bite and chew disappears, the standard and the gluten-free pasta become quite similar to each other. This is particularly the case when the lasagna is sliced and seared until the cheese oozes out from inside to form lacy brown crisped bits.
What's In The Mix?
After we offered him our feedback on the taste test (flat pastas work better than stuffed, and the more that's going on on the plate, the less you notice the differences), he let us in on his secret.
"We're actually just using straight-up Thomas Keller's Cup 4 Cup blend," says Mark. The gluten-free flour substitute was introduced to the market in 2011 and has been widely praised for its ability to replace flour in a wide variety of recipes. "We tested our own recipes for a long time, but when we tried out the Cup 4 Cup, it just worked."
There are differences in how the pasta handles. "The dough is much more fragile—you can't bend or stretch it very far," he says, as he picks up two raw orecchiette, one made from regular flour, the other from Cup 4 Cup. "But you can still roll out the pasta until it's thin enough to see through, as long as you're careful with it."
He ripped apart the orecchiette one at a time, showing us how the standard stretched about 25% before tearing, while the gluten-free tore in half with virtually no stretching at all.
Ed and I finished both thoroughly impressed. While it's true that side-by-side, the differences are there, Mark's goals were more realistic: "Well first, we wanted diners who love pasta who haven't been able to have a great pasta experience come in here and say, 'Man, this is how I remember it tasting!' and to trigger that taste memory for them."
"The other side of it is that when we have a table that comes in and orders, gluten-free diners used to feel left out." Del Posto serves only fixed menus, and all of them have mid-courses of several pastas. "We wanted them to be able to come in with their friends, order what they want—the exact same dishes that are on the regular menu—and have it all delivered to their table and served seamlessly so that they won't have to feel like they are missing anything."
At this they've succeeded admirably.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.