Courtesy of Brinker International

Let's offer a moment of silence for the punchline that never was: Maggiano's Little Italy, the pasta purveyor owned by Dallas parent company Brinker International, announced a special all gluten free menu that will be available at the end of the month.

There's the set up. Now if you're expecting oxymoronic hilarity, prepare to bow down to chef Jeff Mann's cheese ravioli with a creamy, fluffy dollop of truffle mascarpone instead.

Here's the grilled jumbo shrimp spiedini from Maggiano's gluten free menu.

Here's the grilled jumbo shrimp spiedini from Maggiano's gluten free menu.

Courtesy of Brinker International

The Dallas Morning News got a three-course preview of this summer's gluten free menu, available April 30 through July 8. The gluten free dishes are a new take on the restaurant's annual "Eat-A-Dish for Make-A-Wish" campaign. Maggiano's research and development chef Mann created it for the restaurant's 49 locations across the country. 

This isn't Mann's first gluten-free rodeo. While Maggiano's occasionally garners jeers for being a "chain," its kitchens operate on an all-scratch philosophy. Maggiano's prides itself on hiring educated chefs who can adapt menu items, or create entirely new ones, to accommodate virtually any food allergy including gluten. But this is the first time the restaurant has created a dedicated menu of gluten free dishes.

Some Americans have adopted gluten-free diets for dubious reasons -- leaving those who suffer from Celiac disease needing edible answers for an allergy that's gotten a bad name.

Mann set out on a mission to remove gluten from all of the menu's handcrafted sauces about 6 years ago, and since then he has worked to incorporate specialty noodles onto the menu. The search for the right supplier meant finding one that was willing to "push the envelope," he said. Gluten-free products notoriously have the reputations for lacking the texture of bread. Mann tested a corn-based product he found too brittle and discovered that rice-heavy products produce better texture.

"Gluten dough is very temperamental," he said. 

Finally, he partnered with Louisa Foods, which did not at the time have a gluten free product. Louisa was up to the development challenge, even when Mann threw out 250 pounds of dough that was too thick and gummy. Mann said Louisa appreciates innovation, so they went back to the drawing board, committed to the project's success. 

"My guiding philosophy is that you only have one chance, one bite, where the brain gets swirling and thoughts about flavors start mounting," he said. That first bite needs to be a stunner.

Yes, those eating gluten free can eat chocolate cake. (The flourless kind.)

Yes, those eating gluten free can eat chocolate cake. (The flourless kind.)

Courtesy of Brinker International

All gluten free items are prepared with separate utensils and have been tested by a third-party researcher. A majority of items containing bread are prepared in the morning, and gluten touches the grill only at lunch for sandwiches, after which the entire kitchen is cleaned.

Mann isn't gluten free himself, but he said he has a close friend who is -- and that spurred his interest in the project.

Gluten, and its intolerance, remains a divisive culture boogeyman. It's estimated that about 1 percent of the population suffers from Celiac disease, with countless others experiencing a scale of less severe issues due to gluten sensitivities. Its physical effects are no joke. However, some Americans have adopted gluten-free diets for dubious reasons -- leaving those who suffer from Celiac disease needing edible answers for an allergy that's gotten a bad name.

But how does Maggiano's gluten free food taste?

Look at the etymology of the word pasta - it literally means "paste." Seeing as how gluten creates the chewy, doughy, elastic texture essential to certain classic recipes, I wondered: Can a pasta place pull off pasta without the ... you know, "paste"? 

Here's what's on the menu:

  • shrimp and avocado lemonette salad
  • Patricia's cheese ravioli, named for a Make-A-Wish child
  • grilled jumbo shrimp spiedini
  • crème brûlée (available April 30-June 3)
  • flourless chocolate cake (available June 4-July 8)    

The ravioli's texture and flavor was indistinguishable from traditional pasta, and it comes highlighted with a rich, decadent truffle mascarpone that stole the spotlight. Also a superstar: The salad's lemonette dressing, which somehow pulls off citrusy-lightness with a thicker, creamy texture, and is dotted with a bacon crunch. (No croutons, of course.)

The gluten free crème brûlée is available in April and early June at Maggiano's.

The gluten free crème brûlée is available in April and early June at Maggiano's.

Courtesy of Brinker International

While the ravioli might be the shining achievement, the menu contains a lot of vegetables and lean protein, particularly shrimp -- fiendish little crustaceans that could send some with food allergies to the emergency room.

In fact, Mann noticed my fiancé politely decline significant portions of the taste-test (because of his shellfish allergy) and made good on his claims: Mann raced to the kitchen and created a chicken dish with similar sauces and flavors that arrived tableside in minutes. Mann estimates that each restaurant receives about 10-15 similar requests each night.

"When you tell your server about an allergy, the chef comes to the table," he said. "We can modify menu items or just ask what you're in the mood for." 

Company policy requires the chef prepare and personally deliver gluten free entrees.

This attention to detail carries over to the menu's final note, dessert, a luxury unavailable to many gluten-free diners. Specialty items exist on the market, but rarely at restaurants, and often at a premium.  

Aisha Fletcher, Brinker public relations specialist, said the goal is to create options that aren't merely for "special occasions." In fact, any of the classic dishes can be made with gluten free noodles, substituted at no additional cost. As for the feature menu's pricing, it's on par with all other special menus, which tend to be only slightly higher than standard menu pricing. 

So, when it comes to a sweet ending -- whether for a special occasion or simply a nice meal out -- Maggiano's crème brûlée and flourless chocolate cake allow gluten-free guests to end dinner with delectable and desirable desserts that taste like the "real thing" and won't break the bank.

Do they stack up for everyone? I'd choose Maggiano's gluten free menu any day of the week. 

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