Executive chef Nikki DeGidio and her kitchen crew spend untold hours ricing cauliflower and sweet potato to approximate falafel, and experimenting with cassava wrap recipes (“there are a lot of shitty ones out there”). But even she isn’t sure how to describe the hearty bowls and plates at Lucky Santo, the restaurant she opened this past January in Ballard’s Sunset Hill district that operates completely free of grains, gluten, dairy, soy, canola, and refined sugar. (Nuts, however, abound.)
“Initially we didn’t want to call it gluten-free or paleo,” she says. For some diners, those words have dour implications. Ones that don’t align with DeGidio’s plush (and milk-free) chicken liver bolognese, which arrives on spirals of celeriac whose texture is practically al dente. (Zucchini noodles better watch their overly soggy backs.) Terms like “clean eating” edge into Goop territory, and “healthy” doesn’t feel quite right when dinner consists of a hefty burger, albeit with slabs of lettuce subbing for a bun, chased with a decently chewy brownie and washed down with pinot noir or cider.
DeGidio was chef de cuisine at Stoneburner when she was diagnosed with celiac disease four years ago. It’s an earth-shattering turn of events, especially for someone who once spent her days coated in flour, prepping pasta. Her menu at Lucky Santo is clearly the creation of a woman who once relished carbs, not the usual Whole 30 virtue parade of runny-yolked eggs atop various iterations of kale and avocado. (The Whole 30 program did recently give the restaurant its official blessing.)
Some dishes are feats of flavor and labor—a long braise in chile, curry leaf, and coconut milk renders a bowl of hand-julienned beets downright tropical. Others, like clams or roast chicken, don’t need much adjustment to eschew gluten and dairy. “It’s just the relief of not having to go through the song and dance,” says DeGidio, of quizzing a server about ingredients or potential cross-contamination.
Flavors are often excellent, she works wonders with texture. If a pot roast bowl occasionally needs salt, or the fan favorite, sweet potato and cauliflower falafel, could use more herby coconut sauce, well—this is still food that doesn’t send your body directly to nap mode. DeGidio’s former boss, Jason Stoneburner, was so impressed with her knack for drawing big flavors from non-allergen ingredients, he became a partner in Lucky Santo.
The dining room, affable and spare, perches on the city’s arcadian western edge, where 85th Avenue descends into Golden Gardens. For now, DeGidio’s food holds similar outlier status—clearly we don’t even have the right nomenclature yet—but she’s on the front end of something big. Lucky Santo commits entirely to the nourishing philosophies that built fans at Juicebox on Capitol Hill, the more upscale Eve Fremont, or Bounty Kitchen, which recently added a location in the thick of Amazon. For every grateful diner with dietary restrictions at Lucky Santo, there’s another theoretically at liberty to gorge on cinnamon rolls or cheese fries, someone who just feels better when vegetables dominate the plate (and is happy to leave all that prep to the pros). This group might appreciate the tagline DeGidio threw out off the cuff, back when Lucky Santo was still in its planning stages: “It’s like being a vegan…but with meat.”