One of the problems for travelers with celiac disease is that they often can’t taste local gastronomic specialties. This is particularly true in Naples, a city famed for its pizza and pastries, such as the mythical babà; pastiera, the queen of Neapolitan sweets; and the ancient sfogliatella.
Until about 20 years ago, it was very difficult for someone with celiac disease to eat in Naples; the number of restaurants equipped for gluten-free cooking could be counted on one hand, and they often had to resort to processed food products sold in pharmacies.
But since then, things have slowly improved. Many restaurants, pizzerias and even bars have realized that failing to offer gluten-free products is a missed business opportunity (the growing popularity of a gluten-free diet, even for people without celiac disease, certainly has something to do with this).
While the menus at most places now contain a few gluten-free dishes, there is only one spot where everything, and we mean everything, is prepared without gluten: Leopoldo Cafebar – Gluten Free (the name says it all). “Everything you see, from sweet to rustic, from bread to taralli, is all gluten-free” is how Ilario Arena, one of Leopoldo’s young employees, enthusiastically greets us.
“Finally, gluten-free products are no longer a niche – they have gone mainstream. If there’s a child with celiac disease, we want her to be able to eat the same high-quality products as her entire family. In short, we think of it as a project of inclusion,” explains 41-year-old Leopoldo Infante, the kind young owner who has clearly seen the importance of the gluten-free market.
“Everything you see, from sweet to rustic, from bread to taralli, is all gluten-free.”
Yet Leopoldo did not build his gluten-free pastry business from nothing: he was born into a family famous for making Neapolitan taralli, a snack that combines the punch of black pepper with the sweetness of almonds. The family business, named Leopoldo Infante, was founded in 1940 by Leopoldo’s grandfather, with whom he shares a name. For years, the Leopoldo taralli factory was the true enduring emblem of the Neapolitan taralleria. Located on Via Foria, right in front of the Botanical Garden, it attracted Neapolitans who were looking for the perfect tarallo.
Today there are four Leopoldo pastry shops spread across the city, in addition to the gluten-free café. Leopoldo owns the business with his sister, Nunzia (their father, Giovanni, was one of the sons of the original “tarallaro” Leopoldo Infante), although Leopoldo manages the day-to-day activity and production of the Infante delicacies.
“Making a gluten-free version of the family tarallo was not easy, but now finally the historic tarallo of Leopoldo is available for everyone,” Leopoldo tells us.
The gluten-free pastry shop is located on Piazza Cavour, right in front of the National Archaeological Museum. The inside is spacious and bright, with tables both inside and out.
There are many advantages of having a laboratory where everything is gluten-free, but perhaps the most important is the level of freshness. Every morning, the bakers make extraordinarily good gluten-free bread with rice flour and sourdough – we have even gotten it hot from the oven on occasion.
What about fresella (dried bread) to make a caponata, that quick salad Neapolitans make with softened fresella, tomatoes, celery, anchovies and various seasonings? They’ve got that, too.
Their desserts, though, are truly exceptional. The rum babà, a historic dessert that is the very symbol of Neapolitan pastry, is now finally available in a gluten-free version. “My girlfriend had never tasted the Neapolitan babà,” says Marco Traverso, a Neapolitan musician who studies at the nearby conservatory. “I’m so happy now that we can eat it together.”
“Many parents were really excited to finally see a good dessert for their children and above all fresh, freshly cooked,” says Ilario, the young employee (who, we must say, speaks perfect English, something that’s not common in Neapolitan bars and restaurants).
“Obviously we couldn’t not make gluten-free pastiera [the famous Neapolitan Easter cake], and at Christmas we also make gluten-free panettone [a sweet Christmas bread], and a version that’s lactose-free as well,” says Anna Signorini, the very kind pastry chef.
“It was not easy to make gluten-free sfogliatella, but we did. And we’re keeping the recipe a secret,” says Leopoldo. “We made a choice of only gluten-free [at this café] because the gluten-free product, besides being healthy, is also a real guarantee of quality and freshness. In fact, artisan gluten-free products are necessarily always fresh,” he adds. “We do not use any preservatives, and therefore our customer knows that everything he sees in our windows has been produced on that same day.”
In short, Leopoldo’s approach to gluten-free baking is clear: “We want to make high-quality products – the fact that they are also gluten-free is just a detail,” he tells us. A small detail, yes, but one of great significance for those who can’t stomach gluten.