Venice Bakery began producing gluten-free pizza crusts in 2005, but the market has exploded, and the company recently opened what it says is one of the largest dedicated gluten-free bakeries in the country.
In an oven 60 feet long and 10 feet wide, pizza dough bakes 16 hours a day. The cooling tower holds 800 crusts, with a circulating fan to cool them to about 75 degrees so they can be packaged for the freezer.
And that's just one production line; a second is scheduled to open in the fall, said James DeSisto, Venice Bakery's chief executive.
Two years ago, DeSisto bought an old commercial bakery, called the Bavarian Bakery, on Vermont Avenue in Torrance. Production has begun there as construction continues. Just upstairs from the entrance will be DeSisto's office, and a test kitchen, with a wood-burning oven, a gas-fired deck oven and a conveyor oven. That way they can test his products the way they'll be cooked out in the world.
Venice Bakery's gluten-free products also have no nuts, corn, dairy, soy or genetically modified ingredients. They are, DeSisto said, "free from everything but flavor."
DeSisto came up with a gluten-free pizza crust in 2005 at the request of a holistic practitioner who wanted it for her patients.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac disease, estimated to be about 1 in 130 people in this country, cannot eat gluten or they can become seriously ill. Other people report varying degrees of sensitivity to it and avoid it. Thanks also to several popular diet programs that shun gluten, there has been a huge increase in the number of gluten-free products available and the demand for them, something some experts valued at around $5 billion last year.
DeSisto said the market is growing "because of doctors writing books such as the 'Wheat Belly' and 'Grain Brain,'" he said. "People who try to eat gluten-free, they often feel better. There's so many reasons, so many ailments."
Venice Bakery, originally located in Venice Beach, sells its products online as well as to restaurants, food service outlets and others. The company's products include pizza crusts, flatbreads, bread crumbs and tortillas.
The 12-inch crust is made with rice, tapioca and potato flour, rice and potato starch, olive oil, sugar, yeast and xantham gum. The pizza we made had a crispy, flat-bread style crust. A serving, one-sixth of the crust, has 120 calories, a gram of protein and no fiber. The bakery tests its products for gluten at 5 parts per million, below a proposed federal limit.
As for DeSisto himself? "I minimize gluten," he said. "But I am Sicilian. If someone puts a dish of linguine and clams in front of me, I eat it."