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A blog about all things allergen-free and delicious

Entries in Restaurant (4)


Review: Bistro Bella Vita serves up a "Foodgasm" when dishing for patrons with allergies

Boeuf Bourguinonne. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hage, Green Frog Photo.


Some Background

I’ve dined at Bistro Bella Vita upon several occasions, twice, specifically for this review.  I have always been treated with respect and generosity by the Bistro Staff, even when I push my list of allergies and their accompanying strict instructions at my server; and even before I started writing reviews.

In my experience, Bistro Bella Vita has done their food allergy homework and they make it clear that they welcome special diets of any kind.  I know this because they told me as much, and they have gluten-free, lactose-free and vegan menus.  But it is also evident in the presentation of each meal, the tastes and textures on each plate, and the consistent care in the service I’ve received each time.  

The knowledge of the chefs, kitchen and servers are a fundamental, dining-out requirement for anyone with food allergies.  Personally, I also want my food to be made with whole, quality ingredients.  I want it to taste delicious, even if those ingredients are restricted.  There are several dishes on the menu that bring me back to Bistro.  In the case of one particular dish they serve, and according to my dining companion, it is “foodgasmic”.


The Food

That dish is the bœuf bourguignonne, a dish that I love, but one that I didn’t think a restaurant would serve to someone with dairy allergies.  French dishes are sometimes attached to their butter, and the balance of slow cooked flavors is what makes a this French stew so good.  Its advanced preparation can prohibit on-the-spot customization.  Unexpectedly Bistro said, “no problem” when I first ordered it, and I’ve ordered it several times since.

I was lucky to have Jeff Hage, a professional food photographer, with me during my most recent meal there.  I decided to “let” Jeff have the Boeuf Bourguignonne while I tried the sautéed duck breast for a second time.  As I scrutinized and enjoyed my duck, Jeff would make a few wordless utterances as he experienced his beef.  I asked him what inspired each reverent hum and he, a super foodie, started describing some tastes and flavors to me.  Here are two such verbalized hums:

“The mushrooms are roasted just perfectly.  Absolutely perfectly.”

“Oh, I just had a foodgasm.  A little piece of chard found its way in with a bite of the beef.  Oh.  So good.”


An Aside

ASIDE:  I looked up “foodgasm” – I thought it might have made it into the dictionary by now, but it hasn’t.  I did find a fun looking culinary web site, though (currently under construction).  Its called “  The Cherry Popping Experience.”   I thought that was hilarious.  And apropos.


 More Food

Duck with Steamed Summer Vegetables. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hage, Green Frog Photo.
My duck was also very good.  It came on a bed of perfectly steamed yellow and green haricot verts and summer squashes.  The balsamic reduction mingled with the duck juices that were seeping onto the plate and under the vegetables.  After watching Jeff photograph my dish, I then proceeded to enjoy that mingling.  The meat was nicely cooked to medium/medium-rare, though a bit chewy both times I had ordered it.  Jeff has more experience with duck than I, so I asked him why this might be.  He said that it usually has to do with the duck itself.  If you put two ducks side by side, one might cook into perfect tenderness, while another might be a little rubbery.  This didn’t stop me from enjoying the dish.  It almost didn’t stop me from literally licking my plate.  But alas, we do live in a civilized world with reputations to protect.

The Staff

I would be remiss if I did not mention Erica, our server.  Erica remembered that I tend to drink sparkling water with lime, made sure to get my food allergy card to the kitchen and then back to my wallet, and made my guests (and me) feel comfortable as we discussed my specialized menu.  Kyle, the special events coordinator worked with the Chef to get a recipe for the duck, including a cassoulet, which will be posted in a few days so you can try the duck for yourself.  He also worked with the manager, Brad, and the Chefs to answer questions about their food allergy practices.  I appreciate the time that each of them offered to help Tender Foodies take a comfortable and delicious space at their table.

Many, many thanks to Jeff Hage of Green Frog Photo for his delish pics.  

Bistro Bella Vita’s Food Allergy Practices

Food Allergy Training:  Developed our own internal process.

Menu Options:  Gluten-free, Lactose-free and Vegan Menus available.  

Gluten-free Options?   Currently no gluten-free pasta or pizza crusts but might develop one in the future.

Comfortable with Nut-allergic Patrons?
Yes, our staff is very well trained and very passionate about accommodating all guests and their allergies.

Dedicated Fryer?
  No, we only have one fryer therefore suggest against fried foods that must be gluten free.

Dedicated allergen-free prep area?  
All prep areas are washed with health department approved cleaners.
We use freshly washed equipment prior to cooking dishes with specific allergies. We change cutting boards, knives, pans and other dishes.  We make sure that all food is prepped on clean surfaces and is not within distance of foods that contain common allergens.  Staff members change gloves prior to preparing an allergen-free meal.  Our kitchen staff is always aware if there is gluten present in spices, and we don’t use tenderizers, caking agents, or roux’s. We do everything in our power to assure that there are no trace of allergens in dishes that require special attention.

Staff Training?

All employees are well trained and informed of the ingredients of all our products and our food allergy practices.  Our wait staff and management understand the potential for a severe reaction and know what to do if something happens.  If an allergen is mistakenly put on a plate, for example, our staff knows that a clean plate must be used and new dish must be made.  Regular refresher training is given to regular staff and new staff is trained.

How many allergen-free patrons do you see each month?

It would be impossible to give an exact number, but there are easily hundreds of people a month who dine with us who have allergies.

Local Sources?  Yes

Organic Sources?  Absolutely.

GMO Products?   We use non-GMO sources whenever possible.


44 Grandville Ave. SW • Grand Rapids, MI 49503 - CLICK HERE FOR OUR GOOGLE MAP

616.222.4600 (voice)
616.222.4601 (fax)




Amore Trattoria Italiana. A Taste of Eden for People With Food Allergies.


 Cured Beef & Arugula Salad

And There Was Light (At the End of the Salad)

In the fall of 2010, I had a Lunch and Learn at a charming little restaurant called Amore Trattoria Italiana.  I had never been there before nor did I know where its location at Alpine and 6 mile was, so of course, I got lost.  Go figure.  I snuck in, red-faced and after everyone was seated, comfortable and with a salad in front of them.  The speaker had just begun.  My RSVP for the event was, “yes, but please don’t include me in the lunch.” 


When I informed the waitress that I would not be eating, she let me know that this was nonsense.  Of course I would be eating.  She insisted that the chef would love to serve me, no matter what food allergies I had.  Gluten?  No problem, the chef makes her own gluten-free pasta and gluten-free pizza crusts.  Dairy?  She’ll wash the utensils and cutting boards and clean the grill before she makes my lunch.  Yeast?  Pizza won’t work, but how about a nice salad?  Black walnuts and parsley?  No problem.  I was so pleased.  The salad was big, nutritious and had artichokes and prosciutto on it.  I used to devour this sophisticated "ham" in the Italian restaurants of New York City when that was my home.  I was very satisfied, and happy that I could save those Tanka Bars stashed in my purse for the next emergency.


After lunch, I met the chef, Jenna Arcidiacono.  She struck me as down-to-earth, knowledgeable and simply charming.  I just had to come back.  It took a year, but return I did with my family and camera in tow.  (And yes, I need a new camera and a better way to light the food!)


What is a Trattoria?

The name itself, Amore Trattoria Italiana, gives the impression of Italian authenticity.  A "Trattoria" is usually one step below a “Ristorante” and one step above a “Hosteria” in formality, but not necessarily in quality.  In Italy, Trattoria are often family run and down-to-earth little eateries.  The external façade of Amore Trattoria belies the warmth within, where the chef and her husband are front and center.  Truly fond memories of Italy popped into my head as I entered the restaurant and as I ate.   It was the spirit of the place.  “Stay!  Eat!  Drink!  Enjoy!”  I love that.


The Tempation

 A partially consumed and delicious strawberry soup

I had emailed Chef Jenna a couple of days ahead to let her know that she might have a challenge on her hands.  Her response was warm, inviting and made me quite excited for dinner.  After we arrived, she came out to our table, showered us with attention and then visited each and every table in the restaurant before returning to prepare the next round of plates.  My sister and I shared the strawberry soup as an appetizer.  It was sweet and delicious.  I don’t eat a lot of sugar, so my mind would ask, “is it too sweet?”  Then I answered myself, “No.  Eat more.” 

For my insalata (salad), Chef Jenna suggested that I try the cured beef with arugula, but minus the parmigiano-reggiano cheese.    It was salty and just as delicious with the arugula alone. 

Both of my brother-in-laws had the meatballs.  When I asked them if they liked their dish, they simply looked up at me from their licked-clean plates and grunted.   I took this as approval.  My father’s beef was a bit dry, as was my Pollo alla Saltimbocca, which is chicken, wrapped in sage and “spek”, then seared in white wine (and usually butter, which was replaced in my dish).  Speck is a version of prosciutto that is cured, bone-in before it is sliced.  

As I roam the earth banning black and white pepper from my plate, I also find that chefs are afraid to use salt to season my meals as well.  Note to self:  tell all chefs that for me, salt is a good guy, please use it.  My mother’s Saltimbocca on the other hand was moist and delicious.  The asparagus was super fresh and cooked to perfection, as were the potatoes.  And my sister, who normally has an extensive vocabulary, simply grunted with a happily glazed look on her face when asked about her pizza.  The piece de resistance, the tirimisu that she and her husband shared, evoked only rolled eyes, moans and groans.  I told them both to go get a room. 

 The apparently, orgasmic tirimisu

The Limoncello

Because of an unpredictable yeast allergy, however, I have been hesitant to drink wine, something I really love with Italian food.  Some wines are fine.  Others are not.  So I choose very carefully and rarely these days, tending toward giant bottles of sparkling water.  Chef Jenna popped back out and noticed that I was without something from her list of purely Italian grape.  So she brought out her homemade Limoncello.  It is made with lemon zest and Everclear.  From what I understand from my research, Everclear is made from corn, however, I have a note into the company that makes Everclear with some specific questions and confirmation.  For several reasons, distilled grain alcohols do not mean that they are gluten-free, as some places on the internet claim.  More on that later.   I'll also post a follow up when I hear back from Luxco, the company that makes Everclear (and yes its legal in Michigan).  I did have a shot of this lovely forbidden drink (without reaction).  I don’t know if it takes her 6 days to make it or not, but it was created in a place that must be called Eden; and it was very, very good. 

 Watch her make Strawberry Tirimisu & Limoncello on WZZM13 - and Get the Recipes.

 Chef Jenna Arcidiacono (right) & my sister

I greatly appreciate Chef Jenna Arcidiacono’s genuine attention, care and excitement.  I was able to enjoy some truly delicious dishes.   Bravissimo!


Food Allergy Practices

Chef Jenna answered a list of questions via email about her food allergy practices.  Here is how they work it in the kitchen and with the staff.

Just let people know that we want every person who comes into our restaurant whether they have allergies or not - to feel like they ate something amazing!  _Chef Jenna Arcidiacono


Food Allergy Training:  I took a Servesafe and Sodexho test both of which involved allergens and allergies.  There is always someone on site at the restaurant who has completed this training, usually myself or my husband.   


Menu:  We have stars and other symbols on our menu to let people know what it gluten free or vegan. I am always available to speak to and work with the customer to make sure they are getting a meal that they enjoy! 


Gluten-free Options?   Gluten-& Dairy-free pizza crust, and gluten & dairy-free foccacia bread.  And chickpea and chestnut flours for breading.


Dedicated Fryer?  We do not have a separate fryer, but we can offer to pan fry items in new oil.  Nut-free and gluten-free oils.


Dedicated allergen-free prep area? 

  • We are very aware that any trace of the items can cause severe reactions. 
  • We wash and sanitize eveything before we use it. 
  • We prepare the gluten free items in a non-gluten space in our kitchen. 
  • Every staff member changes gloves before handling an allergen-free meal 


Staff Training?

  • All staff is trained and if they don't know the answers I ask them to refer to me and I speak to each person with food allergies personally.
  • Each staff member knows that if there is a rare mistake made to a dish that the entire dish must be remade and a clean plate used.
  • Some of my staff has food allergy issues, so we talk openly about any of their issues and concerns.
  • I check orders personally to make sure they are done right.
  • We refresh their training once a week.


Local Sources? 

We use local sources as much as possible and all year long with some who are hydroponic! 

Organic Sources? 

We love to use Earthkeeper farm in Kent City and organic free range eggs from a farmer in Kent City as well.

GMO Products? 

I don't use any GMO products.


Visit Amore Trattoria

on the web:

To Dine Out:

5080 Alpine Ave NW

Comstock Park, MI 49321





Gaia Vegetarian Cafe is Brunch-o-licious.

No Cow, Dairy-free and Yummeee.

The Jim White (without tortilla and without cheese) w/ Potatos & Onions

After my move to Grand Rapids, MI, I had walked across the street from a rather dark, non-descript building.  For a year or two I always paused and wondered, "what on earth is in that place?", but never ventured past my curiousity to find out what kept pulling my attention.   Then one day, after a class at From The Heart Yoga Center, my then-new yoga buddies said, "Wanna go to Gaia?"  Through these great peops I discovered that Gaia was a Vegetarian restaurant and it is located in that very building.  

As we opened the big wooden door to a well-hidden, but bustling restaurant, I had also hoped that this Earth Goddess Eatery would be food-allergy literate and Tender Foodie accepting.  They were.  And are. 

They use whole, fresh foods and don't blink an eye when I ask, "is the corn organic?"  But I do double check to be sure that both the servers and the chefs understand that none of my particular food allergens can be near a cutting board, plate or other food item (and you should, too).  The good news is, their fried potatos and onions are perfectly browned and always made with olive oil and not butter.  The great news is, those potatos also qualify as lick your plate good. 

Gaia is an understated, welcoming little joint with a kind, intelligent staff and a kitchen you can observe as you wait for a table.  The crowd is a great mix of tie-die, family, creative and loosen-your-collar business types.  The energy in the room inspires and allows great conversations.  My favorite thing on the menu (so far) is The Jim White.  I order it without cheese or romaine lettuce.  I also reject the tortilla.  They do have an all corn tortillas made by a local company.  I haven't yet spoken to the tortilla maker to confirm their allergen-free factory practices but I don't feel any pressure to do so on a personal level - I just love the Jim White without the traditional tex-mex wrapper.

The combination of avocado, black beans, brown rice, scrambled eggs (made without milk), tomatoes and salsa is consistently fresh, delicious and always satisfying.  The rest of the menu promises to be the same.  On my way out I always bow slightly in respect to the delicious Gaia Blend Organic Sumatra Coffee.  Somehow it makes ricemilk, which I usually find too watery as a milk replacer of any kind, a very compatible coffee companion.  I have dubbed this Gaia blend some of my favorite coffee in town.

Gaia is also a perfect place for vegetarians to bring their non-vegetarian friends, as no one will leave with their stomach growling. Through a search I  discovered that "Gaia" means, "the goddess of the earth, who bore Uranus and by him Oceanus, Cronus, and the Titans."  Gaia may not serve meat, but their stick-to-your-ribs fair is worthy to carry the name of this Titan-baring goddess.

Although Gaia is open for different meals, I tend to gravitate toward the noon-time hour on the weekends, since Gaia is so bruncholicious.


Find Gaia at:

209 Diamond Avenue Southeast Grand Rapids, MI 49506-1525 - (616) 454-6233
Open Tue-Fri 8am-8pm; Weekends 8am-3pm




Restaurant: The Green Well -- Treats Foodies with Allergies Right


Off the Menu: Curried Quinoa Hash with Chicken

One of the Few Where Tenders Can Relax & Enjoy

There are only a few places in Grand Rapids where I . . . (a Tender Foodie with food allergies) can relax and simply enjoy my food.  

One of those is The Green Well Gastro Pub in Grand Rapids, MI.

I don't have to be embarrassed.  I don't have to do alot of explaining, checking, double-checking or excusing.  And my dining companions don't have to be embarrassed for me or have their patience sorely tested as I command our server's undivided attention.  I can simply tell my server that I have an allergy to gluten and to dairy.  I have a few other intolerances, too.  But I know that if I speak up, any server and any chef in the kitchen will know what to do. 

When I say I enjoy my food at the Green Well, I mean that.  Each visit has been consistently delicious.  Other restaurants, and there have been many, just remove those "offending ingredients" from the dish.  Or . . . they don't know how to do the simplest things like use oil instead of butter.  Or . . . they don't know that their spices or tenderizers contain gluten or dairy byproducts. You get the picture.

The Green Well chefs, however, really understand their ingredients.  You see, real chefs do.  They know where each ingredient comes from.  They also understand how to replace commonly used ingredients with "something else".  For instance, something that browns well, that adds the same depth of flavor, or that pops just the right amount of that somethin' somethin'. They don't simply follow the formula, they create your dish.


My Delish Dish(es)

So last Friday evenning, even though my friends "oohed" and "ahhed" over their Butternut Squash Ravioli with Candied Walnut Brown Butter, I could revel in my beautiful piece of Trout in a spicey sauce with olives and a vegetable ragout -- sans broccoli (because I hate broccoli and broccoli doesn't like me).   I was surprised that the sauce was as spicey as it was when paired with the trout, but the spice did not over power the fish in any way.  The fish was fresh.  The trout and spices played nicely together on my plate and with my palette.  In fact, I was so excited to dig in, I forgot to take a picture of this beautiful piece of fish for this post.  To my delight, however, the server asked the chef to take a quick shot of a similar plate before it made it to its lucky destination.  He did it.  The trout pictured below is how it was served normally that night.  My dish was made without the goat cheese croquettes and with a sauce that suited my particular allergies. 

 The Trout Special (as it normally appears). My order was prepared without the croquettes and with a sauce that suits my particular allergies.

I had also eaten lunch at the Green Well twice within the last couple of weeks.  You know, "just to be sure".  I asked if I could eat off the menu.  My server on both days said, "Absolutely" and made a suggestion.  So on each occasion I had different versions of a quinoa hash with braised pork.  The first version was nestled in a curry sauce.  It was the ultimate, alternative comfort food with lots of depth as well as protein.  (Who needs mac and cheese?)  The second version was in a milder, but equally delicious concoction with asparagus and snow peas (pictured top). It was lighter, but equally satisfying. 

The two things that have impressed me the most about The Green Well, is their consistency and their ability to work with me.   Prior to the onset of these fabulous food allergies, I was someone who would try pretty much anything.  Food allergies haven't just changed what's on my plate, they have changed my personality.  After becoming a Tender Foodie in 2003, any thoughts of venturing, "off the menu" had become a no-no of life saving proportions.   But now I can say,  "have the chef whip up something tasty" and this freedom makes me feel a little more like "me".  I have a sneaking suspicion that other Tender Foodies understand.

How to Work with the Green Well if you have Food Allergies

Part of my protocol for reviewing any restaurant is to dine there at least twice prior to forming an opinion.  As Member #20 of the restaurant's first customer group, The Green Well Cartel, I have been their guest on several occasions.  But I've watched, I've tested and have observed:  they don't reserve their Tender Hospitality just for "me". 

I spoke with Rob Tamburello, Green Well's General Manager about their standards and practices for Tender Foodies.  I also asked him how people with food allergies can help their kitchen serve these guests well.  He said:

We pride ourselves on being able to provide for any food allergy.  We also have many vegan diners, and will accomodate you even if you simply don't liking something, or have temporary restrictions.  For instance, we've pureed food someone who had a broken jaw.  We've made beef broth for the wife of a diner who was on a 3 month diet.   For special or restricted diets, it's actually easier for the chef to go off the menu and create something new.  You can feel confident that when you come in that we know what we are doing.

Here is a quicklist that summarizes our conversation.

 Green Well FAQ

  • Do they have standards for allergen-free cooking?  Yes.  The Green Well has created their own standard to accommodate different levels of allergies and to ensure that there is no mistake.  They do regular reviews with their staff; and each chef must sign off on their food allergy standards.
  • Do they have a gluten-free deep fryer?  No.  but the Green Well will pan fry or bake certain items that might normally be deep fried.
  • Do they serve gluten-free bread?  Not currently, but they are continually searching for new sources that meet their quality and allergy standards.
  • Is there a separate gluten- or dairy-free menu?  Nearly 90% of the menu can be made gluten- or dairy-free upon request.  Therefore, no separate menu is required.
  • What about nut allergies?  Make sure to call ahead to let the Green Well know you are coming and to discuss your options.  Nuts are a little tougher because so many products are produced with nuts at their processing facilities.

When is it necessary to call ahead?

  • If you are visiting for the first time, it is always a good idea to call a day or two ahead to speak to the manager.  To respect the manager's time and to make sure you can have a good converstaion, try to call when it isn't lunch or dinner hour.
  • If you have a life-threatening, high sensitivity allergy or several food allergies (such as a nut allergy).  The restaurant may need to make special preparations.
  • If you have several food alergies or severe diet restrctions.
  • If you would like something special that might not be on the menu, just to be sure the proper ingredients are in-house. 


The Green Well makes it clear that if you are on a special diet of any kind, that they will work with you to get it right and make it delicious.  They not only can handle it, they want to.  This makes them one of the few.  We like that.