Over two years ago, we visited Zizzi in Winchester when we heard that they did gluten free pasta. We had a good experience and although the only dairy free pasta sauce was tomato we were impressed. The staff were helpful and ‘got’ gluten free. Zac had never ‘eaten’ in a restaurant before and it was so lovely to see his little face. Much has changed since then and more and more restaurants have been embracing gluten free but still the dairy free offering has always been poor.
Since our first visit, Zac has developed oral allergy syndrome and his worst trigger is ‘fresh’ tomato – chopped up in sauces. We first discovered this on another visit to Zizzi about a year later – so haven’t been back, because this has been their only dairy free pasta sauce. I have kept an eye on their online menu in the hope that there would be a different dairy free sauce but instead discovered they have now rolled out their gluten free pizzas across all restaurants. Great news.
Zac has recently ‘discovered’ pizza – firstly at Pizza Express and then at Pizza Hut. A gluten free, dairy free pizza looks pretty much like tomato puree on toast but he likes it and the most important thing is that he ‘feels part of it’ as he joins in as everyone studies their menus, places their order and eagerly awaits the arrival of their chosen dish. He is ok with the tomato sauce on pizza. His problem is ‘skins and seeds’. Puree is usually quite ‘processed’ and somehow ‘less spicy’ on his tongue.
It’s always difficult to get waiting staff to understand ‘no cheese’ on a pizza because it sounds ridiculous and looks even worse, but if that’s all you know, and all you can eat – it is still a pleasure. I’m happy to say that when we visited Zizzi in St Albans yesterday the young lady who served us totally ‘got it’ and was even sympathetic. She happily brought out the new allergy menu – and listened as I explained what he needed and what he could have.
I do have a few criticisms however. Firstly, his carrots and cucumber pot ‘starter’ came out with doughsticks ‘nestled’ among them. So he couldn’t eat any of them because of the clearly visible cross contamination. Not a major issue to fix, it only takes seconds to go back to the kitchen for a clean pot and chop up some more veg – but the problem is the trust. If I have just spent ages explaining that he needs the gluten free pizza, I would’ve thought it was obvious that he couldn’t have the dough sticks either. Perhaps I should have been more clear, but after the introduction of the new law last week you would think/hope that the waiting and serving staff would be more on the ball.
The new menus were great. Previously it was just a few ticks on a matrix listing what was gluten free and dairy free and now there are whole pages devoted to each of the 14 allergens and it is very easy to see what you can and can’t have.
But I do wonder how thorough the training has been, to make such a ‘rookie error’ as that. I recently read in an Facebook ‘gluten free’ group that a lady had recently been glutened at Zizzi in St Albans and now I can see why she was warning others off. The message hasn’t entirely got through. I noticed on the ‘pizza station’ that there was lots of ‘throwing flour’ flying around and I was not told whether or not it is gluten free flour. I guess not, because when our waitress did deliver Zac’s pizza she said, “just to be clear, it is a non gluten containing pizza base, but we cannot 100% guarantee that the pizza is entirely gluten free”. They also have this caveat on the menu, so I guess as consumers we cannot say we don’t know that there is a risk as we tuck in, but it seems a bit sad that they couldn’t take the extra step that Pizza Express recently took.
By taking these extra measures, and putting this information on their website in such a friendly and reassuring way Pizza Express restaurants are positioning themselves in a much more caring and inclusive way and you can guarantee they will get more custom from the gluten free folks as this becomes more widely known. Zac hasn’t been diagnosed as Coeliac, he has a non-IgE wheat allergy, so isn’t as sensitive to the odd crumb in the wrong place, but that’s not the point. So many people are – and would be made very ill by the ‘throwing flour’ getting in the wrong places. So that is why I’m writing this piece. Gluten free people – you need to be very careful still in Zizzi. They are compliant in terms of the new law and information required, but the risk is still there.
My other criticism is one that I level at all food serving places – the dairy free choices are almost non existent. The only dessert he could have that was gluten free and dairy free was sorbet – lemon, strawberry or pomegranate. Lemon and strawberry can be risky to oral allergy syndrome sufferers. I never expect him to be able to eat a dessert so had a selection of ‘safe’ puddings on me – but he really wanted to try the pomegranate. So I let him. I had a big bottle of Piriton on my bag, so knew I could handle it should he have a reaction. Happily he didn’t. He loved it. I was excited because we can now assume this is a ‘safe one’, however, a lump of frozen fruit ice isn’t that exciting or imaginative is it?
My final criticism is that gluten free pizzas never come out in ‘child’ size. You always get the standard size – far too much for a six year old to eat. So again, you are paying too much. Us ‘free from families’ are used to that but it doesn’t mean we should accept it. I am not sure why restaurants cannot find a clever way to give you a child sized ‘safe’ portion. It is a well known fact that children suffer with more food allergies than adults – at the moment. So why not create a ‘child menu’ that is also an ‘allergy menu’. Watching him receive his ‘kids menu’ and knowing that he won’t get to choose from it is pretty annoying. Being charged for an adult sized pizza that he can’t eat is even worse.
I know these sound like minor issues and classic ‘first world’ grumbles, but I strongly believe that if the likes of Zizzi are going to embrace the new law, then they should perhaps think about investing a bit further in their ‘allergy offering’. We all know that ‘allergy customers’ are the final decision makers about where to eat if they are part of a large party, so restaurants who don’t welcome us, or do it properly, will lose our custom and the custom of our friends and families.