“If it’s not made out of wheat, it’s not pasta.”
That was fresh-pasta specialist Peter Robertson’s response when the patrons at his farmers market stand began requesting gluten-free options in the mid-2000s. Today, he can’t help laughing as he admits that most of his business, RP’s Pasta Company and a spinoff, Taste Republic, is now gluten-free.
Robertson was one of the first operators in a product category now worth more than $250 million annually in the United States (according to estimates by SPINS, Information Resources, Mintel and Green Circle Capital in July 2018): “Better-for-you” pasta alternatives. The Gluten-Free Mall’s online store has more than 50 sans-wheat pasta options, Trader Joe’s has nine alt-pastas under its private label, and Whole Foods sells more than a dozen brands in its dry, frozen and refrigerated sections. The offerings range from simple $2 gluten-free spaghetti and spiralized raw zucchini “noodles” to Capello’s paleo-friendly almond flour fettuccine that rings in at $11 per box. The array of innovative noodles features various flavors, textures, ingredients and nutritional profiles, and it sends a clear message that Americans are embracing the reinvention of pasta.
Robertson honed his craft in Italy, where durum wheat and eggs were not optional; they defined pasta. He recalled that sales of traditional dry pasta took a hit around 2003 when the Atkins diet craze demonized carbohydrates, but his sales of fresh pasta escaped the fad relatively unscathed. It wasn’t until a close friend was devastated by her celiac disease diagnosis that Robertson decided to experiment with gluten-free pastas. The farmers market crowd raved about the final product, and Robertson couldn’t even tell the difference between his original pastas and the new al dente brown rice creation.
“That’s when the switch went off in my head,” Robertson said. “If there’s no compromise, then what’s the issue? If it’s going to eat like pasta, then I can call it pasta.”