UPPER EAST SIDE — A Murray Hill restaurant that helped champion the gluten-free movement is moving uptown.
Bistango Ristorante, a casual Italian eatery, will open a second location at 1420 Third Ave. in March, bringing more options to a neighborhood with limited gluten-free offerings.
Co-owner Anthony Avellino said he is simply following his clientele.
“In getting to know our guests, we realized that many of our longtime customers who had left the neighborhood were moving to this area,” he said. “We also had many customers coming down to see us from the Upper East Side.”
The uptown outpost will offer the same menu — complete with gluten-free stuffed pastas, pizza, desserts and alcoholic beverages — as the 415 Third Ave. location.
Bistango, which opened in 1988, started to offer gluten-free options nearly 11 years ago, putting the restaurant a few years ahead of the trend. Avellino said that the change came about because of one customer.
“She came to us and she said, ‘I have Celiac disease. Can you help me?’ I said, ‘Walk me through it,’” he said.
At first, Avellino simply incorporated a few gluten-free items into the menu. As he learned more, however, he decided to undertake a full transformation.
“It took about a year for us to fully commit,” he said. “We had to reorganize the kitchen area and find good bread and pasta substitutes, which was a challenge at the time.”
Gluten, which is found in wheat, barely and rye, is the protein that gives foods like bread and baked goods their elasticity — but can also be a source of allergy triggers for those who shun them.
Avellino eventually started to source bread and baked goods from Everybody Eats, a Brooklyn-based bakery. But the change wasn’t just about substitutions.
In the kitchen, Avellino created separate preparation areas for gluten-free and regular menu items. He also educated his staff on food sensitivities. Bistango’s waiters are now known to ask customers if they have any food allergies at the beginning of their meals.
As a result, Bistango has developed a reputation amongst those who eat gluten free, either for medical reasons or because they're seeking the reported health benefits, including weight loss and better digestion. Avellino estimates that about 50 percent of Bistango's clientele come to the restaurant specifically for the gluten-free options.
Sloane Miller, the blogger behind the popular site “Please Don’t Pass the Nuts,” said that Bistango is also a great place for people like her who have severe food allergies. In one blog post, she wrote about how Avellino brought out the label for a new dessert he had ordered so that Miller could double-check the ingredients before sampling it.
“Anthony is a true restaurateur in that the customer comes first,” she said. “He focuses on what each customer needs and then tailors a menu to that.”
She said the Upper East Side is a prime location for a restaurant like Bistango.
“I’m on the Upper East Side all of the time and can never find any place to eat,” she said. “There have been places there in the past that did gluten-free and allergen-aware, but there have been a lot of closures, especially along Second Avenue.”
The uptown location will also give Bistango room to try something new: baking its own gluten-free desserts. Avellino is working with a pastry chef who will create treats for the uptown and Murray Hill locations.
After a successful 25-year run, Avellino is excited to branch out to the Upper East Side.
“We love the neighborhood,” he said. “We know it’s a demanding clientele, so it's really a question of doing things right and doing them consistently.”