Mac and cheese, fried chicken, and fish and chips may sound like typical fare for an American-style restaurant/pub, but there two things that make such dishes on Acova’s menu stand out. First: Each one is gluten free. Second: There’s a deeply personal story behind them.
Co-owner Betsy Workman and her 12-year-old son Taylor both live with celiac disease, struggling to dine out safely because many dishes labeled gluten-free on restaurant menus are often subject to contamination from wheat, rye, and barley being cooked in the same spaces. “I know when he gets ‘glutened,’” Workman says, about how Tyler becomes ill after accidental gluten consumption.
So, when Workman and her husband Sean (who also own the Hornet on South Broadway) had the opportunity to purchase the former Patsy’s Inn—a beloved Italian restaurant that closed in 2016 after 95 years in business—they were determined to create a safe space for those who experience the food sensitivity. The couple tested dozens of recipes to put together a lineup of more than 40 gluten-free dishes. “Sourcing the different flours, pastas, and other items was quite a process,” Workman says.
You can taste their thoughtful handiwork in dishes like crispy New Planet-beer-battered cod served with thick potato chips. Or luscious lobster mac and cheese made with corn- and rice-flour pasta, coated in a heavy-cream-thickened cheddar and parmesan sauce. For brunch, the fried chicken (dredged in a combination of tapioca, arrowroot, rice, and potato flours) comes with honey-cayenne sauce, eggs, sausage gravy, and a fluffy biscuit (made from butter, whole-grain rice flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, and salt).
In December, under the direction of kitchen manager Julio Aguilar, a Hornet alum who joined the Acova team about a year ago, the restaurant debuted a 96 percent celiac-safe menu; there are just two items—bread pudding and pierogis—that are not naturally gluten-free or offered with a gluten-free alternative. To avoid cross-contamination, there are separate areas in Acova’s kitchen for handling and storing glutenous ingredients, including a designated dish-washing area. “The gluten items are the rare ones in our kitchen, so it’s easier to keep them contained,” Workman says.
Workman says the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly from patrons who are sensitive to gluten. “I’ve cried with customers because they start crying,” she says. “They experience a flood of emotion when they realize they can have everything on the menu.”
Acova has even gained the approval of some Patsy’s regulars, a feat the Workmans are thankful for since they hope to carry on the restaurant’s legacy as a neighborhood gathering place. The name Acova, which means “nest” in Italian, is a nod to both Patsy’s and the Hornet. “We want to be a community nest,” Workman says.
If you visit Acova during lunch or dinner service, you’ll likely run into Workman, who floats from table to table chatting with customers. Don’t be shy: Whether you have a gluten sensitivity or not, she’ll be excited to hear your story, too.
3651 Navajo St.