Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sterling Heights eatery is gluten-free option for diners

G.F. Cucina's co-owners John Yaquinto and his mom, Mary Lee Vassallo, have immersed themselves in the art of preparing gluten-free foods.
(Photos by RASHAUN RUCKER/Detroit Free Press)
With dishes such as lasagna, teriyaki chicken and stuffed cabbage on the menu, the fare at G.F. Cucina's in Sterling Heights sounds simple and straightforward enough.

But there is a complex art to making these dishes and others that are prepared and sold at the 2-month-old establishment on Mound Road between 16 and 17 Mile roads.

Every item there is made without one of its normal components: gluten, an invisible ingredient that can be sickening and even life-threatening to certain people.
Gluten is a protein binder that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and oats. It is in much of what we eat, even as minuscule additives, and the G.F. in G.F. Cucina's stands for gluten-free.
There are people who opt to eat gluten-free by choice and others, such as those with celiac disease, who go without gluten out of medical necessity. The owners of G.F. Cucina's -- John Yaquinto, his mom, Mary Lee Vassallo, and Mary Coles -- are learning the science of gluten-free cooking and baking with the aim of serving anyone who wants to eat gluten-free for whatever reason.
Celiacs, however, drive the seriousness that is behind checking every single ingredient and additive to each and every product used and sold at G.F. Cucina's.

"There are probably 1,500 people within 20 miles of here who need gluten-free food," said Yaquinto, of Warren. "And they don't know we're here."

Co-owner Coles, who lives in Troy, has celiac disease. Besides working in the restaurant, she acts as an advisor on what celiacs are looking for. For example, a restaurant that's all gluten-free -- not just with a limited gluten-free menu made in a kitchen where the products are worked on alongside gluten-based products.

She also is a reminder of what happens if the strictest standards aren't met.

"They can be sick for days, hospitalized. The gluten flattens out the villi in their intestines and for days they cannot absorb nutrients," Yaquinto said. "We have to do this right. We know there are people out there who need us.

"Two years ago I'd never heard of gluten-free. I'd never heard about celiac disease."
He started to learn about it when Coles approached him at a mutual friend's cookout. Yaquinto was doing grill duty. Coles began to share her personal health story. "She approached me several months later. She said 'I know you like to cook. And I know we need a restaurant that celiacs can enjoy and trust.' "

Yaquinto, whose work in electrical engineering had dropped dramatically, used all his savings, cashed out his 401K and found money to start the new business.

Learning the ropes
Cooking gluten-free can be costly and tough to learn.

But Vassallo, a baker and former cake decorator who lives in Sterling Heights, is thrilled to be experimenting with a new way of baking.

"It's a whole new world," she said moments after putting a chocolate coffee cake into the ovens.
Vassallo, who comes from a long line of fine Italian cooks that trace back to Sicily, was surprised by the style of restaurant her son wanted to open. She moved back from Florida to help him get it going. "I said 'You want to do what?' "

The restaurant and gluten-free eating have since become a shared passion as they learn, test, research and carefully prepare and order each and every product, ingredient and so on.

Both are getting an education, spending time on the phone with food producers large and small, with doctors and organizations such as the Celiac Sprue Association. They are working on getting a certification from the association, which puts a meaningful stamp of approval on restaurants deemed truly gluten-free.

While his mom is the baker, Yaquinto is the chef. "My whole life my mom has cooked and shown me how."

He is practicing on pizzas, a tricky accomplishment, as typical flours and grains are what make a crust great.

With the cheeses, nothing can be processed. His fresh ricotta for the lasagna comes from a Canadian producer. The lasagna also happens to be his grandmother's recipe, which is 100 years old.

"We triple-check everything," he said. "There's nothing in here that can cross-contaminate."

They're working on cookies that can be taken home in to-go bags. Desserts such as a pineapple cake went quickly out of the bakery case last week. "People say, 'Oh my gosh, a dessert!'

Because most desserts have gluten," he said.

His mom stopped eating flour about four months ago: "I feel wonderful. Now I don't eat it at all."

Attracting new customers
Customer David Sinadinoski, the owner of Pump Fitness in the same shopping center where G.F. Cucina's is located, stopped by out of curiosity and liked the idea of eating healthier.

"I smelled it, and I wanted to try it," said Sinadinoski of Macomb Township. "I don't have to eat it, but I wanted to try it."

Another customer, a father who lives in Oxford and works in Sterling Heights, stopped in just before to inquire on behalf of his young daughter. She has celiac disease and he and his wife eat gluten-free. He took a menu, said they need a place like this and told Yaquinto he'd be back.

"The kids are beautiful, I just wish when they go to school they could have cupcakes like the other kids," Vassallo said. "I really would love to get some of our foods, the desserts especially, into the schools so they wouldn't be left out."
When the restaurant gets busier, Yaquinto wants to market himself to institutions that now offer little for those with celiac disease.
"I hope to get into hospitals, schools," he said. "It shouldn't be hard for them to get foods that won't make them sick."

G.F. Cucina's teriyaki chicken kabobs are just one of the gluten-free meal choices at the restaurant.

Gluten-free snacks, such as chips, are available at G.F. Cucina's for people who opt to eat gluten-free by choice and others, such as those with celiac disease, who go without gluten out of medical necessity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This all gluten free restaurant is wonderful!! The food is delicious and I feel safe eating there.