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Have food allergies? Many restaurants will cater to you

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"No" is an all-too familiar word around our dinner table. As in, "No, you can't have that sweetie. It has milk in it." "No, honey, there are nuts in that."

My 9-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter have multiple food allergies, so mealtimes are a stress pool of "no." Eating out is even harder. Pasta was our one safe constant.

Then we learned that Talia is allergic to wheat. "NO!" Not my beloved pasta. Like Scarlett O'Hara, I wondered, "Where shall I go? What shall I do?" Fortunately, unlike Rhett Butler, area restaurants are starting to give a damn. That's especially good news for pasta eaters who are allergic to wheat.

At Maggiano's in Durham (8030 Renaissance Parkway, Suite 890, 572-0070 www.maggianos.com) those with wheat or gluten sensitivities can order a gluten-free fusilli pasta paired with their choice of sauce. It's not on the menu, so you have to ask. Olive Garden locations also offer a gluten-free penne pasta paired with marinara sauce.

The locally owned and lesser-known chains get props for going the extra mile. Family-owned Casa Carbone (6019 Glenwood Ave., 781-8750, www.casacarbone.com) in Raleigh keeps a regular rotation of gluten-free capellini, spaghetti or ziti in stock.

I recently had a craving for the awesome marinara at Daniel's Restaurant (1430 W. Williams St., 303-1006, www.danielson55.net) in Apex. They don't have gluten-free pastas, but when I asked if they could boil Talia's gluten-free noodles in a separate pot for us, they happily obliged. An hour later, Talia was grinning ear-to-ear with a smattering of marinara across her puckered lips. That's the kind of service that will keep us coming back.

Last week, I met my friend Margaret Stroud, a Raleigh mom whose family follows a gluten-free diet, at Biaggi's (1060 Darrington Drive, 468-7229, www.biaggis.com) in Cary. We were given an impressive two-page menu of gluten-free options, including five pasta dishes that substitute Tinkyada brown rice spinach spaghetti for conventional noodles. Because cross-contamination is a concern, I verified that the gluten-free noodles were boiled separately from wheat pastas.

We both ordered the "Farfalle Alfredo," which is chock full of chicken, peppers, ham, onion and peas. My daughter had the spaghetti with dairy-free pizza sauce. (There's butter in the marinara.) With its green tinge, it did not look appetizing. Margaret and I winced, then dug in. Oh. My. Goodness. Yum. I'm a gluten eater, but I didn't feel like I was missing anything with this dish. Talia took longer to warm to her plate. But after a bite, she was sold.

Managing partner Bruce Myers said Biaggi's sometimes hands out the gluten-free menu a dozen times a day.

Another night, I called ahead to locally owned Bella Monica in the Olde Raleigh Village shopping center (3121 Edwards Mill Road, 881-9778, www.bellamonica.com). They are known for their popular gluten-free pizzas, and we scored when I spoke to manager Chris Connelly. He inquired about each of my children's allergies, read the pasta's ingredients aloud and suggested a couple of things they could do. They have a gluten-free menu, and they tailor-make a gluten-free penne chicken pasta dish with a side of marinara for Talia. She enjoyed dipping her tubes in sauces while I tried the gluten-free stuffed shells. I could barely tell the difference—the gluten-free shells were a near dead ringer for their traditional wheat counterpart.

Bella Monica has worked to ensure there are no kitchen mishaps, explains Trevor Chambers, the restaurant's director of gluten-free products. Gluten-free dishes are served on green plates or in distinctive arrangements. A special billing system can prove confusing for customers but serves as an allergen checkpoint for waitstaff. Word is getting out. The restaurant recently had seven tables ordering from the gluten-free menus at the same time.

On May 16, Bella Monica is offering its first multicourse gluten-free wine dinner. Vanessa Maltin, a chef and cookbook author who specializes in gluten-free food, will attend. Space is limited, but $50 plus tip reserves your spot and includes Maltin's The Gloriously Gluten-Free Cookbook. Call 881-9778 for details or e-mail feedback@bellamonica.com; subject line: Gluten-free wine dinner.

This list isn't meant to be comprehensive, but it's a start. For allergic families everywhere, I say a resounding "Yes!"

Reach Joyce Hicks at joyce4indy@gmail.com.

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