Local chef grows vegan cheese, raises bar for restricted diners

Gaetano's owner wants specialized food to appeal to everyone

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By Lucia Whalen

Contributing Reporter

Anyone with dietary restrictions knows the experience of restaurant dining can be far from easy. Fearful of ordering an item with hidden allergens and of inconveniencing the waiter and kitchen by requesting special dishes, the diner with dietary restrictions all-too-often settles for the safest (and most boring) item on the menu: salad.

Gaetano's Italian Restaurant is trying to transform the experience of dining out with dietary needs by offering a range of menu options for those with gluten, dairy, nut, and other food allergies. While those with dietary restrictions tend to avoid Italian food due to its heavy emphasis on pasta, cheese and cream, almost 90 percent of the menu at Gaetano's can be made gluten free, with a large portion of vegan. 

"I don't want to penalize anyone for having restrictions," said Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto. While most restaurants offer allergy-free options, they often lack the flavor and excitement of traditional dishes. Di Benedetto said he is committed to providing culinary adventures without sacrificing the expertise and innovation applied to other dishes.

Rather than simply offering store-bought vegan cheese and gluten-free pasta alternatives, Di Benedetto has committed to creating all menu options in-house, applying the same traditional fermentation techniques used for other dishes. Most recently, he started applying the fermentation techniques used in dairy cheese-making to creating vegan cheese that is closer to the taste of real cheese. Gaetano's offers a spread of vegan toppings and sauces, including parmesan, mozzarella, butter, and a tofu-based cheese. He is currently working on a vegan bleu cheese.

"These are not the shredded packaged mozzarella cheeses you find on the market," said Di Benedetto. Most store-bought cheese, like the brand Daiya, is not cultured, or fermented. Dairy cheese gets its salty and acidic flavors through the process of fermentation, which uses good bacteria and enzymes to transform and preserve. Fermentation transforms milk to cheese, cucumbers to pickles, and crushed grapes to wine. It is cooking as science, as it requires carefully controlling temperature and pH conditions to ensure the proper transformation of flavors. 

The kitchen at Gaetano's is filled with various forms of fermentation, from dough and cheese making to meat curing. Fermentation is an ancient practice used by most traditional cultures, and it is a staple of Italian cooking. However, according to Di Benedetto, most restaurants skip the fermenting process, as it takes time.

Nutrition scientists have demonstrated the importance of healthy bacteria in diet, and the lack of fermented foods in the modern diet is believed to be a major contributor to health issues, especially digestive imbalances. Traditional cultures did not need probiotic supplements, as they ate plenty of fermented bread, meat and vegetables. 

The menu at Gaetano's boasts an array of options for those with dietary restrictions, with items that even someone without allergies can opt for, such as King Oyster Mushroom Rolls, Cauliflower Tots, Potato and Mushroom Rolls, and Truffle and Cashew Fondue. Warm, gluten-free bread is served with vegan butter made in-house. Even the base sauces, all 18 of which are made in-house per the old French standard, are gluten- and preservative-free.

Di Benedetto is experimenting with every part of the menu, and is even creating a vegan liqueur from coconut and almond milks. 

"Gluten free and vegan alternatives need to be made with more intelligence," he said. 

Innovation is central to Di Benedetto's approach. He sees his restaurant as a living art exhibit, and himself as the curator. The physical space, from the front doorway all the way to the back room, he designed and decorated with the goal of transporting the diner to Italy. The front restaurant space is painted in the courtyard design of an old Sicilian villa, with live plants hanging from the wall and stars dotting the painted sky ceiling. The menus reflect the same rustic aesthetic. 

Born in Sicily, Di Benedetto has been a chef for 40 years. While gluten-free food is often viewed as bastardizing fine cuisine, his perspective on cooking and eating changed when he faced his own health problems in the form of mild food allergies. 

"I became obligated to discover a new way of eating," he said. 

He changed his lifestyle and lost 110 pounds, reversing his diabetes. "I had to relearn what to put into my body," he said, adding, "We need to relearn how to be healthy. Organic was the norm when I grew up, and healthy was the normal diet."

Di Benedetto's lifestyle changes strengthened his commitment to use only natural ingredients in his cooking. The restaurant is focused on using whole foods from natural sources, and no ingredients used are genetically modified. 

His own health problems led him to create more options for those with similar struggles.

"Don't get me wrong, I love cheese," he said, "but out of necessity, and because I experienced dietary challenges, I want to make more options available to customers." 

Most of all, he said, he doesn't want people with allergies to be shy: "I want people to be happy! So tell your server and we will show you options."

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