Pasta is emblematic of our melting pot society. Enjoyed around the world in humble homes and the finest of restaurants, pasta transcends social, cultural and economic boundaries. But what if you're gluten-intolerant? As it turns out, gluten intolerance isn't just an American affliction. Gluten-free has become a huge movement in Italy, where there is a high rate of celiac and gluten intolerance, and the food industry is responding in kind.
Perhaps this is why many chefs over here have finally wised up and embraced the growing gluten intolerant population. It used to be if you wanted gluten-free pasta, you had to cook it yourself at home – but there is a bit of a learning curve. So, when you're not in the mood for trial and error, the following Italian restaurants do a fantastic job of taking the guesswork out of a stellar bowl of gluten-free noodles.
Hostaria Del Piccolo
Light and healthy don't tend to be adjectives used to describe pasta, but that's what comes to mind once you've finished eating Hostaria del Piccolo's gluten-free spaghetti and don't feel the need to be rolled out in a wheelbarrow. Aiming to be a jack of all allergy trades, in addition to several antipasti and entrees made sans wheat, HdP's menu offers a gluten-free pizza crust and two gluten-free pasta options: penne and spaghetti. Both pastas are made from 100% corn flour, and according to gluten-eaters tastes just like “normal” pasta. The spaghetti is the more healthful, can-be-made-vegan choice. Tossed in a light olive oil coating and topped with Parmesan cheese, the lentils emulate a subdued meatiness and are enhanced by the acidity of roasted tomatoes and soft, bitter arugula. Portions are on the smaller side, leaving you feeling downright virtuous. Until you order the gluten-free salted caramel cream puffs. 606 Broadway St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-3633.
Il Capriccio on Vermont
As traditional as it gets. A homey neighborhood Italian joint such as this nearly insists you order its culinary equivalent: pasta bolognese. On the menu, it's listed with a pappardelle pasta, but the organic, gluten-free Bionaturae brand penne is a worthy substitute. Made of rice, potato and soy flours, and cooked just past al dente, it's perhaps an even better vehicle, providing nooks and crannies in which the crumbly morsels of ground beef and pork can accumulate. And, honestly, there isn't much that is more comforting than enjoying a Sunday afternoon on a shaded patio on Vermont Ave, with a glass of chianti and a bowl of elevated nostalgia in front of you. 1757 Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 662-5900.[
Owner John Tierney opened Il Fico with chefs Nicola Mastronardi and Giuseppe Gentile (of Brentwood's Vincenti Ristorante), who both hail from Puglia. The menu reflects their region's rustic, coastal cooking with a refined sensibility, highlighting vegetables, seafood and authentic wood-fired pizzas. What is most endearing here is their dedication to offering gluten-free pastas and pizza, which they've done since opening in 2011. They are one of a few restaurants in town who make their gluten-free pastas in house – an impressive feat, considering the challenge of creating something that relies inherently on gluten's sticking power.
They list on their blackboard up to four varieties daily – fusilli, penne, spaghetti, tagliatelle – which can be subbed into most of their pasta dishes. Made with eggs and a flour mix of garbanzo-fava, brown and white rice, quinoa and tapioca, the tagliatelle is cooked al dente, resulting in a pleasant, toothsome texture that holds the sauce well despite being a bit more fragile than elastic gluten pasta. But the real stars of the show are the casual artistry and sauces combining fresh, simple ingredients in dishes like the chitarra pasta with clams and garlic and the rich, tangy sugo di salsiccia with sausage and spinach. Together with the Italian-accented waiters squeezing by your table and the warm, convivial atmosphere, it feels as if you've been transported to a hip seaside ristorante in Southern Italy. 310 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 271-3426.
Superba Snack Bar
One of L.A.'s newer hallowed houses of pasta also makes a pretty amazing gluten-free counterpart. Chef Jason Neroni's son has celiac disease, so Neroni is sensitive to the dietary restrictions some people must adhere to. To that end, his juicy fried chicken can be made with a gluten-free coating upon request and he makes his own gluten-free rigatoni from rice and tapioca flours.
Cooked al dente, the rigatoni successfully substitutes into the carbonara pasta, which is tossed with crumbled pancetta, coarse Parmesan, a sprinkling of black pepper, and arrives topped with a glistening, almost iridescent poached egg. When you break open that egg, the oozing yolk melds with the cheese for a salty, buttery tongue bath, and while there may be a note of complexity missing without his cold-smoked bucatini noodles, it's still nothing short of indulgent. 533 Rose Ave., Venice; (310) 399-6400.[
Osteria La Buca
La Buca is really hitting its stride these days. A changing of the guards recently put the reins into the hands of new owners Stephen Sakulsky and John Moezzi. As the restaurant's longtime GM, Sakulsky has cultivated an interesting wine list, loyal customer base, and a down to earth vibe that balances the sleek, stylish environs with Sundays dedicated to half off bottles of wine and Monday night's Pitchers & Pies special.
The warm welcome extends to the kitchen – they were one of the first to offer a gluten-free pasta alternative, and they're working on a gluten-free pizza crust. The gluten-free penne is cooked a sturdy al dente for a satisfying chew that works well in the hearty braised lamb ragu with baby rapini. Pickled Fresno chiles are a piquant complement to the chunks of tender Harvey's Guss lamb, undercutting the generous toss of melty pecorino for a dish full of robust flavor and texture. With food this soulful, La Buca might be the most authentic, modern-day approximation of the exuberant, sprawling, family-style meals that are had in Italy. 5210 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 462-1900.
At upscale mega-restaurants such as Scott Conant's Scarpetta – with outposts in Vegas, NYC, and Miami – you don't necessarily expect such friendly accommodation to pesky dietary requests. But this is Beverly Hills, and the Montage, which prides itself on catering to the every whim of its well-heeled clientele. Don't let the pedigree deter you, however, because beneath the coiffed facade is the kind of easy, lived-in glamour you can only find in L.A. This is most evident in Scarpetta's relaxed dining experience, where chef Freddy Vargas deftly doles out food of a quality that justifies the prices. Which is good, because if you're going to pay $24 for a simple spaghetti marinara, it better be the best damn bowl of spaghetti you'll ever eat this side of the Atlantic. It is.
Luckily for the gluten-challenged, the kitchen can substitute any of their pastas with gluten-free corn flour spaghetti upon request. The noodles are firm, their thickness a happy medium between angel hair and Scarpetta's thick, handmade spaghetti. A splash of the well-salted pasta water is then added to the sauté pan, letting the starch emulsify the tomato sauce so it adheres better to the pasta, which is finished with Parmesan and butter and arrives as a large fistful of entwined spaghetti, flecked with fresh basil. The process creates an inexplicably creamy, velvety, downright luxurious confluence of taste and mouth feel that leaves a lingering spiciness on the tongue and not a single noodle in the bowl. 225 N. Cañon Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 860-7970.