Going gluten-free: the Italian concept developing coeliac-friendly dishes

Food operator Leggero saw a gap in the market in 2014 and went for it. Now it’s examining how to expand further into the fresh pasta arena.

11 January 2019

Gluten-free options on a menu are common for restaurants today. But what about turning the restaurant totally gluten-free?

When Italian outfit Leggero originally launched in Soho in 2014 as a polenta-focused concept, it was continually fielding questions over whether it was gluten-free. (It wasn’t.) But the idea planted a seed and pushed the business – which has a restaurant and two market hall locations – to rebrand as entirely gluten-free. And ditch the polenta.

At the time, CEO and co-founder Gabriele Vitali saw the gap in the market, a gap he believes still largely exists – although other operators have since started to plug it too. Ardiciocca, for example, opened last year with a gluten-, dairy- and sugar-free concept.

“Basically, Italy is a country based on gluten, because we have pasta, bread and pizza,” Vitali tells Food Spark. “Really, I think almost no one in London was serving Italian food gluten-free in 2015. Even today, people are surprised we do fresh pasta gluten-free. Being Italian, we really had a good opportunity to exploit it.”

Colourful pastas

Leggero develops its own gluten-free pasta, breads and arancini to ensure there is no cross contamination. It also supplies bespoke pasta to several restaurants.

“Gluten-free for us was more a cultural challenge, rather than technical. It took months to get the right mix and blend of flour, but the big step was to get out of the comfort zone,” says Vitali.

Bestsellers for the business include its butternut squash flan, topped with parmesan fondue and flavoured with thyme and rosemary; bread stuffed with olives; and rosemary foccacia. Flavoured pastas have also proved popular, like its black squid ink ravioli and basil tagliatelle.

Alternative pasta ingredients were a notable theme last year, and Vitali says it is a key food development area for Leggero.

“Recently, we have experimented with spirulina pasta, which is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein and amino acids. There is a fantastic dark green colour,” he comments.

Vitali has also seen a huge demand for dairy-free pasta dishes, which he says his pasta maker wasn’t thrilled about when presented with the challenge.

Jackfruit, turmeric and pastries

When it comes to Leggero’s menu development, input from wait staff is just as important as opinion of the head chef, as servers relay customer opinions.

“We decide how many vegan, vegetarian, meat and fish-based dishes there will be based on sales and research we do, including on other restaurants to see what are the main trends. Once we define that part we gather together the kitchen and floor staff and start brainstorming. We tend to listen to a lot of feedback from the waiters and waitresses as they know what people like and they have immediate feedback from customers,” explains Vitali. “Then the next step is for the kitchen to identify a few ideas which will be shared together again with the floor team in a third meeting. After two trials, the menu is released.”

More vegan and vegetarian dishes are on the radar for Leggero right now, while Vitali has also noted the huge popularity in jackfruit – though he’s not sure how it could fit in with Italian cuisine. He is also experimenting with turmeric for a new dish and is looking to introduce a coffee break concept in the mornings and afternoons where pastries will be available.

Outside of the restaurant, Vitali has plans to grow the wholesale arm, the target being to open a proper site to produce pasta this year. He also sees a gap in fresh gluten-free pasta in retail, but admits there is a lot of investment in logistics, packaging, distribution and marketing required before that becomes a reality.

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