Many restaurants seem to be clueless when it comes to food allergies, beyond a few that have made the news recently. But there are exceptions.
When you have food allergies, a dinner date starts with research. A lot of information can be found online, but if you’re already in the car the direct approach can be faster. My sister and I went out to dinner last night. She is highly sensitive to Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), but was craving Italian food. Does Italian food have MSG in it? We weren’t sure. A phone call later, we had learned that Johnny Carino’s, the restaurant we were considering, had an allergy menu!
Armed with that information, we braved the restaurant. As we entered, two smiling women greeted us. Neither of them was the woman with whom my sister had spoken, but she had left instructions for them to have a copy of the allergy menu ready and they handed it to us promptly. There were no pictures, but the across the top of the printout was a list of ingredients (eggs, milk, MSG, and wheat) and whether or not the dishes, listed down the left side of the page, contained those ingredients.
A short way inside the restaurant we were seated at a table for four, nestled in a corner with privacy walls on either side. From where we sat we could see two rows of booths and the open kitchen. The music was what I would call “soft,” and played just loud enough to be heard over all of the conversations simultaneously taking place.
We were still inspecting the menus when our waiter approached and introduced himself. One of my primary reasons for suggesting the restaurant had been the wide range of Italian sodas that they carry—ten flavors! After deliberating between orange and cherry, I decided to try black cherry, just for the fun of it. The first sip was like ordinary black cherry soda. Then I remembered that I hadn’t stirred the cream in; it was still floating lazily in the top two-thirds of the glass. Ah, much better! A creamy black cherry soda is an experience I recommend enthusiastically!
After a delicious soup and salad (hearty minestrone for my sister, house salad for me), our main dishes arrived. I had selected chicken fettuccini, a dish I had tried before and liked. My sister, this being her first meal at Johnny Carino’s, selected the spicy shrimp and chicken pasta and carefully cross-checked it against the allergy menu. Beware the spicy shrimp and chicken! It’s loaded with garlic and so good that my sister had to force herself to stop eating it. She was full, but was enjoying it so much that it was just hard to put her fork down.
The bread was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The minestrone was flavorful and enhanced by the addition of cheese; the chicken fettuccini was rich and creamy; the spicy chicken was unbelievably tasty. The black cherry Italian soda sparkled. Then we ordered dessert. A lemon cream cake with gorgonzola cheese. I suppose it was my high expectations that made it fall flat for me. I was expecting a zing of lemon flavor, not tart, but (almost) overwhelming. The cake itself tasted liked a medium-quality cake mix, a tad dry and given to large crumbs. The lemon flavor was there, but the faint—worse yet, the flavor was overshadowed by the powdered sugar that the cake top had been dusted with. Being a practical person, I tipped the cake over and tapped the top with the handle of a utensil until most of the powdered sugar had been knocked off. Then I tried it again. I finished it, but I can’t say it was $6 worth of good.
That was the only disappointment, though. The waiter was pleasant; the allergy menu was above and beyond the efforts I have seen other restaurants make; and 98% of the meal was rave-worthy. In fact, to quote my sister as we left, “Oh, that was good.”
So for those of you who have food allergies, consider calling in advance to the restaurant of your choice and asking for an allergy menu. For those of you who love Italian, you'll definitely want to give Johnny Carino's a try! :-D