To cap off her internship at Eater Boston, Lilienne Sexton has completed a special project examining the options available around town for diners who omit nuts, gluten, or dairy from their diets due to allergies or other reasons. Each day this week, we're running a map or interview on the topic.
[Photo: Christine (left) and Carla Pallotta/Rachel Leah Blumenthal]
At Nebo, an Italian restaurant now located in Atlantic Wharf after nearly a decade in the North End, co-owners and sisters Carla and Christine Pallotta have been offering extensive gluten-free pizza, pasta, and other dishes for about seven years now, well before many restaurants were making a point of offering gluten-free options. Carla chats with Eater about their decision to start serving a gluten-free menu alongside their traditional dishes and more.
What made you decide to offer gluten-free items on your menu before it was such a prevalent thing?
It actually wasn't because of the restaurant at first. A friend said he was gluten-free, and the gentleman standing next to him was a client of ours for seven years or so, and he was saying that he was also gluten-free, and nobody did gluten-free. That friend used to come over to our house, and I was joking with him, saying "Well, I'm not doing any special dinners for you." But Christine and I love a challenge, so we just started doing this at home, for the hell of it. At first we didn't think we were going to do it in the restaurant, and then we decided to do it. It took us about four months to train everybody. We've been open about nine years and doing gluten-free at least seven.
What percentage of your customers would you say order gluten-free food?
You know something, percentage-wise, I couldn't tell you. I know we are doing more gluten-free than we've done before. A lot of people are actually doing it now just because they feel like being on a gluten-free diet. A lot of them aren't even celiac, and they come in and they just say, "Oh, I think I'm going to eat gluten-free tonight."
Are customers ever turned away by the higher prices for gluten-free options?
No, they really aren't. Anybody who has celiac goes shopping and knows what it costs to buy food that is gluten-free, and they know that in just the flours alone there are different ingredients that are much more expensive, so they really understand the add-on cost.
How do you make sure there's no cross-contamination?
We've being doing this for so long now. We double check and double check. [When someone has an allergy] it not only goes through the server, but the manager is told right away, the food line is told right away, and the kitchen is told right away. And then it's the same process coming out. You know, the kitchen is checking, then it goes to the food runner, the manager is very aware of it and watches it come out. It's a whole process with everyone involved. You have to work as a team to do it very well.
Pasta and pizza are two of the most seemingly gluten-dependent foods. What kind of process did you go through to find a good recipe? Was it difficult to get the right taste and texture?
To be honest with you, pizza is very difficult, but I think for us, we aren't known as a pasta and pizza place only for our gluten-free menu. The thing that we offer that's very different is we offer shrimp, calamari, veal milanese, zucchini lasagna. The things that we offer are things other restaurants aren't offering. It's not that we're just saying, "Oh, we will get a gluten-free pasta and do a gluten-free dish." We are actually transforming recipes that were my grandmother's and my mother's and turning them into a gluten-free menu.
You've been open in your new location for about a year now, but you had some trouble getting the oven up and running in the beginning, right?
We had a company that we ordered a pizza oven from, and we didn't like the way it was performing. They replaced it, and we still didn't like the way that was performing. Christine and I are perfectionists, and she is the pizza queen — she's so particular about pizza, she's just crazy. They had people from their factories come in, they had chefs from their factories come in, and they were like "It's good," and we were like, "No, it's not good."
At the time I was probably on my eleven hundredth pizza, and I went home and said to my sister, "I am done. This is absolutely ridiculous." It was a Friday morning, and I said to her, "I'm opening Tuesday," and her and her fiancé were like, "You can't open it; you have no pizza." I said, "You know what? I'm so much more than pizza. I'm opening." It worked out to my benefit because people would come in, and they'd always be in a rush to get to an event, and they'd say, "Just give me a pizza, give me a pizza." I used to say, "Try one of my dishes. I have cioppino," and they never would. Four weeks later, when the ovens were actually working, I decided to say, "OK, I'll start the pizza now," and people who would only get the pizza before are like, "I'll get a pizza to take home, but I'm eating the cioppino." So [pizza] is maybe a third of my business, where as before it was probably fifty, sixty percent.
Aside from the oven, how has the transition from the North End to Atlantic Wharf been?
It's so funny, 'cause at the time, our landlord had tripled our rent because he saw we were doing well there, and he figured, "Now's the time to get them." So I basically told him to go eff himself, and that's the exact words . We checked out this location, and Boston Properties at the same time was coming to us saying, "Would you consider doing another restaurant?" It was perfect timing. It was a gift. The whole thing turned out to be a blessing. We are very, very blessed, we are always busy, we have an amazing clientele. We took our entire staff with us — they all stayed — and then added probably about another fifty. We were closed for almost four months, so what we did was pay my entire staff those four months just to hold onto them.
Over here, it's great because you have people who are really dining rather than just in a rush to get to an event. And what also worked out good for us was that we have tourists, we have the hotels next to us, we have the business people, we have the families, we have neighbors. We kept our old clientele, and they still come before the games, which is amazing to me. They come here, they eat, and they're like, "No, you're our good luck charm; we can't break tradition," so it's just been fabulous. We laugh about this all the time. About two months into the new location, we looked at each other and said, "How did that go so smoothly?"
When you were preparing for the new location, you said that you wanted to bring the same experience from the North End to the Atlantic Wharf. Can you say that you have successfully completed that?
Yeah, we did a lot of little things to do that. We stayed true to who we are — we still do the recipes that we grew up with, the kind of food we grew up with, and we aren't trying to be anything fancy or anybody we're not. For us, it was about bringing these people in this neighborhood a family type of restaurant, and that's what we wanted to be. Our goal was to have people eat here four, five nights a week. Christine and I are still on-site owners; restaurants this large don't normally have their owners around as much. We also don't have any professional cooks. We start everybody out at the bottom, and they work their way up, and we train them to do our food the way we grew up doing it.
· All coverage of Nebo on Eater [~EBOS~]