Italian gourmet market Agata & Valentina has been called “New York’s original Eataly.” But its celebrated pasta, pizza, breads and prepared dishes remained mostly off-limits to gluten-intolerant sufferers of celiac disease since the store opened in 1993.
Its Sicilian-inspired products are in demand for social gatherings and family dinners far beyond its Upper East Side neighborhood. But ever since co-owner and founder Agata Musco’s daughter, Valentina, developed the dangerous celiac condition more than 10 years ago, Agata and her husband, Joe Musco, long wanted to adapt their popular eats for gluten-averse gourmets.
The Muscos and Valentina Musco Puleo — who’s now a vice president at the company — with their partner Louis Balducci — recently launched Agata & Valentina Gluten-Free at 1513 First Ave., on the north side of E. 79th St. across from their bustling original store at No. 1505.
The city now has many spots that cater to celiac sufferers, but Agata & Valentina’s is the first to be launched by operators with such a high media profile and nationwide following. Offerings uniquely include not only brands sold elsewhere, but gluten-free adaptations of Agata & Valentina’s own, well-regarded prepared foods and baked goods.
The Muscos own the one-time bank building at 1513 First Ave. They most recently rented the ground floor to a vitamin shop. But with the lease ending, they knew the time was right.
About 85 percent of products in the handsome, 2,000 square-foot market are 100 percent gluten-free. There are also vegan and dairy-free choices and a coffee bar at the front.
For years, Agata Musco said, “It was in the back of my mind to create an Italian store where people can come in without fear of getting a stomach ache or seriously sick.
“As a child, my daughter would get very gravely sick” from gluten.
At the time, gluten-free products that tasted good “were very hard to find in New York,” Agata said. Those that were available were risky because they could easily be contaminated in the kitchen by contact with ordinary flour.
But Agata, who doesn’t suffer from celiac disease herself, was thrilled to find genuinely gluten-free edibles in her homeland of Catania, Italy, even “in the middle of nowhere.”
When the time came to take the gluten-free plunge, the Muscos decided to make everything in the new site’s kitchen to ensure purity.
They started to “experiment for a few months with things such as croissants, scones, the things we make for breakfast,” Musco said. They later found ways to make wheat-free pizza, pasta and other dishes that taste all but indistinguishable from the originals.
“We tried to re-create everything we make in our original store without gluten while keeping the same flavor. For example, a regular turkey meatball will have breadcrumbs and a lot of cheese. In our new store, we use gluten-free panko breadcrumbs and sauteed onions, peppers and garlic.”
A best-seller at the original A&V spaghetti involtini, is re-created with gluten-free spaghetti and tomato sauce, wrapped in baked eggplant and topped with ricotta salata and fresh basil.
Most dishes look like the originals, but what matters most, Agata said, is that, “Most people are so surprised when they taste them, they say, ‘This is really gluten-free?’”