When I became gluten-free six years ago, I had to take a tender moment to say goodbye to my favorite foods. Pizza, freshly baked bread, and pasta were nothing but a fond memory. It was an emotional time. But back then, there were way fewer resources for us gluten-free folk. Nowadays, it’s a completely different ball game and there are alternative products everywhere you look. However, the issue here is that a lot of these substitutions either taste terrible or use a boatload of ingredients you’ve never heard of. Pala, located in the Lower East Side, has been on a mission to combat these two preconceived notions of gluten-free alternative products one pasta and pizza dish at a time…
I walked into Pala and was met with tons of natural light and a charming, hip yet rustic vibe. The restaurant has an expansive garage door in front as a window, which brings in a nice glow during the cold seasons, but is raised during the summer to make all of your patio dreams come true. At first glance at the drink menu, I realized I wanted their Bacio di Limone, which consists of limoncello, prosecco, and lavender syrup. Unfortunately, they were out of the limoncello necessary to make the drink, but my server was determined to create me an alternative that tasted just as good. He quickly whipped behind the bar, compiled this mystery cocktail like a sorcerer, and delivered it to me. It was delicious.
For the first course, I ordered the Calamari and the Caprese Salad, with Mozzarella Bocconcini, cherry tomatoes, arugula, onions and basil infused olive oil. When I saw the calamari on the gluten-free menu, I knew I had to have it. In moments, a fresh, hot plate of fried goodness was delivered to me. I graciously squeezed the lemon over my new bounty, stabbed a piece with my fork, drowned it in the extremely flavorful marinara sauce that was provided to me, and took a bite – I had enacted this routine several times throughout my gluten-full days years ago and doing it again now was like riding a bike. This calamari was so unbelievably crispy, fresh, and tender. Literally unbelievable. Many gluten-free calamaris are breaded with a corn starch-type mixture that oftentimes falls off in the fryer or, even worse, onto the table or your lap during the short ride from the plate to your mouth. Pala’s breading was completely flawless. There was absolutely no way you would have known that the calamari was gluten-free.
The Caprese salad was a nice, healthy contrast to the crispy calamari, but was still packed with flavor. My favorite part of this dish was the basil-infused olive oil. This addition was a very nice touch.
As a sort of interlude to the main course, I ordered the Cavatelli pasta with lemon basil pesto, artichokes and tomato confit, but with the gluten-free fusilli noodles. The pasta section of the menu is yet another testament to how much Pala cares about your dietary restrictions. They offer three different types of gluten free noodles – Spaghetti made with corn and quinoa flour, Fusilli made with brown rice flour, and Penne made with rice, potato and soy flour – just because they know corn and soy are common allergens. Talk about dedication! Needless to say, my pesto pasta dish was incredible. The pasta was firm yet tender, unlike many gluten-free pastas that turn out either completely soggy or uncomfortably chewy. I could talk for hours about the lemon basil pesto, especially since I learned after talking to the chef that this sauce was dairy-free AND nut-free. I had heard of dairy-free pesto before, but nut-free? My mind was running around in circles just trying to comprehend how this was even executed. The main course hadn’t even arrived, but Pala had already won me over.
Last came the pizzas. I ordered the Etna, with eggplant, cherry tomato sauce, Daiya cheese and fresh basil, and the Broccolina, with pork sausage, sautéed broccoli, braised fennel, shaved potatoes and Daiya cheese. With one bite, I was transported to a heaven specifically reserved for NOBREADers and it was divine. As with any gluten-free pizza, the crust is what is most important, and Pala hit it out of the park. Instead of using rice flour like many gluten-free crusts, Pala uses a combination of nut and tapioca flours. After gushing to the chef and asking far too many questions about how this pizza was made, I gathered that creating this recipe was no easy feat. It took several months of kitchen testing, research, and even traveling to various food expos and restaurants to try other products on the market.
Pala has invested so much time and effort into making the best gluten-free crust possible, and their efforts have not gone unrecognized. If you’re heading to the Lower East Side, your trip will not be complete without Pala’s fluffy, flavorful, and allergen-friendly pizzas.