However, in keeping my finger on the pulse of what's going on in the world of dining out gluten-free, I cannot ignore the buzz around some big chain restaurants. Maggiano's Little Italy is one such restaurant with nation-wide presence that I have heard rave reviews of from fellow foodies and gluten-free patrons.
While in Charlotte, NC for the Gluten and Allergen Free Wellness Event during my spring break, a glutening and exhaustion from exploring the super busy and crowded show floor left me craving comfort food. In scoring the plethora of restaurants in and around the South Park Mall area, I set my sights on Maggiano's wanting a big bowl of comfort food in the form of pasta.
Arriving mid-day, the restaurant was not crowded at all, and my mom and I were seated right away. Our server arrived and welcomed us warmly, and did not blink an eye when I let her know that I'm both gluten and dairy free. As I briefly looked over the menu, I noticed that they put a note at the bottom of the menu that gluten-free or whole wheat (not safe) pasta is available to substitute for those wanting healthier options.
Soon after greeting us, our waitress introduced us to the chef who would be taking care of my gluten-free meal to ensure proper protocols would be involved. He explained that their gluten-free pasta is 100% corn based, and is penne shaped. All of Maggiano's sauces are made from scratch in-house, and are mostly gluten and dairy-free (except for the Alfredo). My meal would be prepared separately in freshly washed pans, and would be followed from start-to-finish to ensure it's safety. Once going over the basics, he then flipped scripts with me, and asked me what I wanted to eat, instead of listing off limited options for me to choose from. With my stomach and imagination guiding the way, I opted for their marinara sauce, and added in spinach, mushrooms, and fresh herbs (heavy on the basil).
When it arrived, I gasped at the sheer beauty and size of the dish. Colorful with the ruby red of the sauce, golden yellow of the noodles, and spots of green and brown of the vegetables, the meal was a kaleidoscope of color. Cautiously taking my first bite, a huge smile broke across my face as I tasted the fresh flavor of the intermingling of ingredients. The sauce, delicious and practically perfect was thick and seasoned well with garlic and spices. The penne were spot on al dente, and were not gummy, dry, or rubbery- the typical presentation of gluten-free pasta. The accompanying vegetables, too, burst with flavor and were noticeably fresh.
Needless to say, Maggiano's Little Italy really impressed me, and I only wish I could have caught the name of the chef and our waitress who really made my experience memorable and made me feel perfectly at ease that my meal was safe. I once thought I would never be able to eat pasta at an Italian restaurant again, and have now designated Maggiano's as my go to pasta restaurant going forward. The simple elegance of the 1920's vibe of the interior and decor turned a simple lunch into an elegant affair, and I truly relished getting to enjoy precious moments with my mom before I flew back to Baltimore to resume my semester. When an experience is this good, I have only one word to say: Bravo!
The BasicsAddress: 4400 Sharon Road, Charlotte, NC 28211 (Located in the South Park Mall)
Cuisine: Italian, gluten-free pasta available, other dishes can be accommodated
Ideal For: Lunch, Dinner
Price: Lunch entrees run $10-$25 on average
Accessibility: The restaurant is fully wheelchair accessible
Special Features: Make reservations online at Open Table (link here) and earn points towards a dining certificate redeemable and many awesome restaurants!