Mozzarelli’s looks like the quintessential New York pizzeria. A large neon sign bathes the street in a bright florescent light and the heavy smell of cheese and olive oil wafts through the doors. Clinically clean, minimal furnishings meet the traditional wood-burning oven in an unusual juxtaposition. From behind the counter, a friendly server offers to take orders as two small children peer over the counter, watching one of the chefs hand roll a wad of dough.
Mozzarelli’s is a typical New York pizzeria in many senses, but owner and chef Elin Molini provides a different kind of service. While a regular slice of margherita pizza will cost you $2.25, customers can also avail themselves of the gluten free variety for $3.95. As well as his regular menu of Italian classics, there is a wide variety of gluten free options, which caters to coeliac disease sufferers. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder and those diagnosed cannot digest either wheat or gluten, making a trip to a standard pizzeria – with its carbohydrate centric menu – almost impossible. Molini, 41 and his brother, Ron have been serving gluten free alternatives since 2004. Here, he explains his approach to gluten free dining.
Why did you decide to make a range of gluten free pizza?
The whole premise behind the pizza line is about kids. Adult interest made it take off but initially it was developed for kids. When you are small and sick it’s very hard to comprehend that you can’t have something. So what we had to do was develop a product which looks like the real product, tastes like the real product and appears to be the real product but it’s made out of potatoes, rice and beans.
Gluten free living has become somewhat trendy. Do you think your customer base has increased recently?
It’s not necessarily to be trendy, as you have to see the results at the end of the day. If you like it and you feel it’s doing you good then you’re going to continue [living gluten free]. I feel people are curious.
Has it taken long to perfect the gluten free recipe?
We had different variations of it until we came up with the final product. It’s all trial and error. Am I happy with it today? No, I want to improve it. Like everything else, you can’t always be satisfied but you have to accept what it is today and make it better tomorrow. It’s like all the other brands. There’s always new and improved on the Cheerios box. They’re the biggest cereal company in the world but they are making it better.
What was your goal when you decided to make the gluten free pizza line?
It’s very easy to go down to your store and buy a slice of pizza. We wanted to create a destination, a place where people who have coeliac disease and their families can enjoy their food together. When you’re next to somebody and both of you can eat the same meal, it’s very fulfilling.
Would you say the majority of your customers are gluten free?
Today you don’t know who you are serving. We have over 200 slices on the counter that are gluten free. We take it very seriously. I think there is always the curiosity of wanting to try something different. I don’t know if the customers need to eat it or they don’t but it’s definitely there for them to choose, which is great.
Is gluten free pizza more expensive to make?
Everything we need to make this product is more expensive. As the demand rises hopefully the prices from the manufacturers will drop. We’re not making more money on the product, percentage wise it’s about the same. But it costs more to make so we have to charge more.
What’s your most popular gluten free slice?
We deal with so many people and so many allergies. You know some people are vegan and they don’t eat dairy so for them the most popular thing is probably dairy free cheese. But, it always comes down to the regulars – the classic cheese is the most popular. If you go to Baskin Robbins, they have forty flavors of ice cream. I’m willing to beat you anything that the number one best sellers are vanilla and chocolate.
What’s the most difficult thing about running a gluten free kitchen?
There’s nothing 100 percent guaranteed but we do try to take every precaution to avoid cross contamination. We really train the staff it has to be done right. Like anything else in life, when you start anything it should never be done for money because the result will be something that is terrible. You want to make it good for those little kids. It goes back to the root of the whole situation. It’s made for kids, for kids to enjoy.
Do you follow a gluten free diet?
A week a month I like to cleanse myself. It makes me feel good. But I don’t have to. I don’t have any problems, no. I personally like the taste of it and I don’t feel tired afterwards. It’s a different type of carbs and you get some protein in your pizza. It’s made out of like 10 or 9 type of beans. That’s good stuff. You get the fava beans and the pinto beans so it’s good stuff.
Why is it so difficult to find tasty, gluten free alternatives?
It all comes down to passion. If you want to make a Coca-Cola, the ingredients are listed on the bottle so go make it! It’s no secret. In a gluten free world, everyone uses the same stuff. There’s no secret. It’s just getting the right combination and formula. Everything that’s good looks easy but nothing is easy that’s good.