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Chef understands celiac challenges

Chef Mauro Mafrici Pelago with his dish Champagne Risotto. His column At Chef's Table talks about irony how he pasta-

Chef Mauro Mafrici of Pelago with his dish, Champagne Risotto. His column, At the Chef's Table, talks about the irony of how he, a pasta- and bread-loving chef, has had to develop gluten-free menus since being diagnosed with celiac disease. Photographed March 1, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 15, 2012 8:02AM

I grew up in Italy, enjoying the best pasta, bread, pizza and desserts. So it was ironic to find out that I had celiac disease, after moving to the United States at age 35.

I had spent my life eating and cooking Italian cuisine, so the flavors, textures and consistencies are second nature to me. At my restaurant in New York, and now at Pelago here in Chicago, I am still able to create authentic Italian dishes — homemade pastas, breads and desserts — without actually eating them myself. I also have branched out to create many gluten-free options that can be enjoyed by everyone.

The importance of following and creating gluten-free menu items became even more important to me this year when my 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease. Now, our kitchen at home is entirely gluten-free.

At first, it was tough to find good corn or rice pasta. We tried every brand readily available. Then one day my mother arrived from Italy with two large suitcases. She always brings gifts for my daughter, but this seemed excessive. When she opened up her second suitcase, I was surprised to find that it was filled with gluten-free pasta!

Many Italians — and Europeans in general — have celiac disease, and they have been working on perfecting products for a long time. The pasta my mother brought with her was great, came in a variety of shapes and held sauce the way standard durum wheat pasta does. We are now able to import this pasta directly from Italy, so my mother is able to lighten her load when visiting.

Most of my sauces can be used on both gluten-free and homemade pasta. In addition to pasta, we offer a variety of risotto. Main courses are easier — I avoid using any kind of gluten that is not entirely necessary. We also have gluten-free cookies and desserts.

Me and my staff in and outside of the kitchen are more sensitive now as to how things are prepared and handled. What started out being a detriment to me as a chef has made me more educated about not only celiac disease, but food allergies in general.

Mauro Mafrici is the chef and owner of Pelago, 201 E. Delaware, and the forthcoming Masaki Sushi, 990 N. Mies van der Rohe.

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