Against the Grain: The Hunt for a Gluten-Free Crust

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Gluten-free pizza sounds a little like a bicycle without wheels. To date, no rider has won the Tour de France with a wheel-free bicycle. And our pizza would never have earned the accolades it has without gluten. Little is more sacred at Pagliacci than great pizza crust. Gluten is what gives our crust its chewy texture and what allows us to toss and spin our dough into discs. Without gluten our dough wouldn’t rise or have the flavor it does. So when our team of bakers and tasters were asked to make or find a good gluten-free pizza crust, they felt a bit like a dolphin might feel upon being asked to find a vacation home in the desert. 

But with the rise of people interested in wheat-free diets, finding a way for them to enjoy Pagliacci pizza was enough to get the skeptical crew going. They sought a crust with a crispy crust and a tender, flavorful interior. Many of the crusts they tried looked like large communion wafers, with little more flavor or texture. Others looked almost like the real thing but had a gummy overly-chewy texture. After testing dozens they settled on one that had the right mix of good flavor and tender, airy open crumb. Moreover, it looked like a real pizza crust, at least at a glance. 

John Clifford, Pagliacci’s director of operations, says, “It’s not our crust, but it’s pretty good. It’s got nice texture, a bit nutty on the exterior with a little sweetness in the interior. And it holds up to toppings. You can give it the classic New York fold and it doesn’t droop and dump the toppings on the table.” 

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More tests were done to ensure that the crust would retain its texture and integrity during a delivery. And more to see how it tasted as leftovers the following day. It passed all the tests. The final stage of testing was to have people who routinely eat gluten-free pizza give it a try. And it just so happens that Ruth Cohen, the manager of Pagliacci’s phone center, has a family of gluten-intolerant pizza lovers. 

Of the pizza Ruth reports, “It is the closest by far to regular pizza crust of any kind we've had, and we've tried many brands and companies over the five to six years we've been gluten free. Most are cracker thin. This dough is softer than most gluten-free crusts and has a lip around the outer edge for holding the slice. It has a great taste and look. We are so happy to be able to eat Pagliacci pizza again!”

A further test was the gluten-friendly environment of Pagliacci’s stores. Anyone who’s visited has seen the mist of flour that surrounds those tossing pies. There’s just no getting around the fact that the stores are not—and will never be—gluten-free environments. Because of this, Pagliacci does not recommend the gluten-free pizza for anyone with celiac disease or gluten allergies. Still, every effort to avoid gluten contact is made, including cooking the pizza on parchment paper, cooks wearing a fresh pair of clean gloves when handling the dough, and a dedicated pizza cutter. 

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For the last two months Pagliacci has been testing the new gluten-free crusts at the Mercer Island store. It has found devoted fans. So now Pagliacci is rolling out the gluten-free option to four more stores: Stone Way, Bridle Trails, Lake City Way, and West Seattle. Provided the operational challenges and reception all go well, a full rollout is anticipated. The gluten-free pizza is only available in an 11-inch size and costs an additional $4.00.

Recently, John stopped into the Mercer Island Pagliacci with his young kids for dinner. On a lark, he discreetly ordered all of their pizzas on gluten-free crusts. “Not that they’re the most discerning diners, but they didn’t notice a difference. I did, of course, it is different, but I really like it.”