Gluten-Free Glutton 

A growing number of East Bay pizzerias add gluten-free crust to their menu. But easy as pie it ain't.

If you're on a restricted diet, chances are it's for the benefit of your health. Heart disease? No butter or red meat for you. Diabetic? Cut out that soda. Trying to drop weight? Kiss those sticky buns good-bye. But if you're gluten-intolerant like I am, or have celiac disease, you're likely looking to keep fatty, starchy foods in your diet — just without the ill effects of doubled-over stomach pain, or worse. Yet finding flavorful flourless substitutes for doughnuts, cookies, cake, bread, pasta, pastries, and pizza is no easy task.

So it's commendable that a number of Bay Area pizza joints have recently started offering gluten-free pies. Grateful patrons can direct their thanks primarily to Still Riding Pizza, a crust manufacturer based in Bridgeport, Connecticut that is aggressively preaching the gluten-free gospel. Company representative LaRae Bates, who's gluten intolerant, believes it's a huge, largely untapped market. In the past few months, she has helped convince seven East Bay eateries to carry the company's product — comprised of a combination of bean, rice, and tapioca flours, among other ingredients. And the number is growing.

Getting restaurants on board is a challenge — and then there's the need to train their employees to avoid contaminating the special crust. Delivered frozen, the crusts are prepared in a cleaned prep area. But flour can become airborne easily, and since the smallest amount of gluten can make celiacs sick, eating at these establishments can be a bit of a gamble. "We just all know that there's a certain amount of risk whenever you go out there," Bates admitted. "So we pretty much have to take responsibility."

With that possibility in mind, a non-celiac Pizza Lover and I headed to Bobby G's Pizzeria on Berkeley's University Avenue. Bobby G's is a student-friendly pizza joint where there was no shortage of pitchers overflowing with beer (basically bread in a glass to a celiac). It was foreign, dangerous territory, but I was excited by the notion of partaking in an ordinary pizzeria experience.

We decided to begin with a basic — pepperoni — so we wouldn't be distracted from the main event — the crust. (Which, like all specialty gluten-free foods, isn't cheap at an extra $4.50 for the one-size-only twelve-inch pie.) When the pizza arrived, piping hot, it looked and smelled just like the real thing. Its crust was New-York-thin (no easy feat without the elasticizing gluten), with crisp edges. It looked absolutely delectable — so it was to our utter dismay that the first bite was, well, not. Though the outside of the crust was perfect, inside it was rubbery and undercooked. In addition, the paltry allotment of sauce made the gummy flavor all the more apparent. Pizza Lover deemed the sauce "watery" and "flavorless." Soon after leaving the restaurant, my stomach was stricken by that unpleasant, unmistakable "I just ate flour" feeling. To Bobby G's credit, the server who took our order readily offered a disclaimer, noting that while the crust is made off-site, it's prepared on the premise where flour is "flying around." He couldn't, he said, promise that it would be entirely gluten-free. Bobby G's regular pizzas may be perfectly fine, but I was disappointed.

My hopes of sampling an edible version of Still Riding Pizza crust, however, were not yet dashed. Our next stop: Pennini's. Tucked away in a strip mall in sleepy Moraga, Pennini's is the penultimate pizza parlor, complete with a large-screen TV blaring an NFL game, a small bar, and tables crowded with parents and antsy children — not the type of place you'd expect to be sensitive to food allergies or intolerances.

Nonetheless, our server was refreshingly well-informed about gluten. He explained that any of Pennini's pizzas could be made gluten-free, but to avoid the meatballs and creamy garlic sauce. Reassured, we ordered the Pennini's Combo: a meat party of pepperoni, salami, sausage, linguiça, bell peppers, red onions, and black olives (but sans meatballs and mushrooms). Thankfully, this pie featured a well-baked crust and plenty of sauce. The crust held up to the mounds of standard-issue pizza toppings without falling apart. And this time, the only thing I felt afterward was satisfied.

Though Still Riding Pizza instructs restaurateurs to prepare gluten-free pizzas exactly as they do flour pies, our pizza from the chain Amici's East Coast Pizza in Dublin was in dire need of more sauce. Without it, our veggie pizza — roasted green bell peppers, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, and black olives — lacked contrasting flavor and left a heavy, greasy taste in our mouths — and our stomachs. The crust had the texture of unleavened bread: dense, though it was rolled thin, with a raw-dough consistency. Even a swig of Anheuser-Busch's gluten-free beer, Redbridge, couldn't wash down this unfortunate pie.

Finally, we headed to the only East Bay spot that doesn't use Still Riding Pizza crust: Pizza Rustica Cafe. And it put the rest to shame. Rustica's owner, Stavros Gougoumis, has showed major foresight in catering to the gluten-free crowd, offering gluten-free crust at its Rockridge location since 1989. Gougoumis wouldn't divulge where he gets his supply, only to say that it's made off-site and prepared on-site with clean equipment. Years of experience have clearly given Rustica time to perfect its recipe, and indeed, it's hard to imagine how they could improve it any more.

Their crust — unfortunately only available in the ten-inch size — is focaccia-like and decidedly thicker than its Still Riding counterpart. We ordered the Salsiccia, which is topped with Rustica's house-made Italian fennel sausage, garlic, mozzarella, and Parmesan. The mouthwatering gourmet ingredients and an ample dose of slightly spicy tomato puree sprinkled with fresh herb toppings helped make this pie the hands-down winner. Hours later, I still thought so. Even Pizza Lover couldn't tell the difference between it and the flour variety.

Now, how about it, Zachary's?

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