Kiki Michalakos, an attorney-turned stay-at-home mom, chose to leave her law practice to spend more time with her three boys. But in 2008, when her then 4-year-old son Panayiotis (Peter), was diagnosed with celiac, life presented her with a completely new and unexpected career path. In order to keep their son healthy, the Michalakos family became a completely gluten-free household. However, becoming gluten-fre didn’t come without its fair share of setbacks and disappointments.
“Most gluten-free products and recipes [we tried]tasted gluten-free,” Kiki said in an email, “and it was a little disappointing thinking that our son wouldn’t get to really experience all the foods that we got to enjoy.”
To combat what could have been a negative experience for her son, Kiki started experimenting at home with different flours and recipes, hoping to create foods that were “truly craveable,” rather than settle-for-less gluten-free substitutes.
“I cried a lot in the beginning,” she said, speaking of her multiple attempts at getting the recipes right. “It seemed like one disaster after another.”
Eventually, Kiki found the magic potion and concocted a stuffed-pocket crust dish that her son deemed “simply awesome.” Slowly, she began cooking for other gluten-free friends who had been equally as frustrated with the quality and taste of gluten-free foods in the market.
“The kicker,” she said, “was that a lot of the friends who then started “ordering” from me weren’t even gluten-free but just loved the taste and the high quality.”
This was the beginning of Kiki’s Gluten Free Foods—a company that’s almost three years old, but is already making its mark in the American food industry. In 2013, Kiki’s won a National Restaurant Association’s Food and Beverage Award “FABI” for their SpinachFeta Pockets, and in 2014, Kiki’s won for an unprecedented second year in a row for their Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza.
“Initially pizza wasn’t something I wanted to tackle so early on in my new company,” she said. “Pizza is one of the most beloved foods for Americans. Everyone has an opinion on the perfect pizza. Wanting to put out a truly craveable product, pizza seemed like a very daunting challenge that I wasn’t ready for.”
After several months of nudging and prodding from her long-time friend, Dino Karageorgis, the owner of Gullivers Pizza and Pub, Kiki changed her mind.
Dino has been the owner of Gullivers since 2009. Since then, Dino has been working steadily to change and improve the inherited menu. Adding more gluten-free options is one way he’s hoping to accomplish this.
“It [gluten-free foods] is extremely difficult to produce, and costly,” Dino said. “ But it’s becoming more popular, and there’s a demand. If there’s a demand for something, then it’s worth doing.”
Kiki and Dino have known each other for over 10 years. They both attend Saint John’s Greek Orthodox Church with their families, and Kiki is the godmother of one of Dino’s nephews. It took them about a year to develop Kiki’s gluten-free deep dish crust, spending long nights in the kitchen, sometimes until 3:00 a.m.
“There’s a lot of really terrible stuff out there,” Dino said, speaking of their desire to create something that even non gluten-free folks would want to eat. “I’m the type of guy that I either want the real thing, or I won’t have it at all. If it taste’s fake, why bother?”
Erin Neederbo and I had the privilege of sitting down with Dino at his Howard Street location to try Kiki’s award winning gluten-free deep dish pizza. At Gullivers, Kiki’s gluten-free deep dish pizzas are frozen and heated to order. They are available for $15 and come in one size, 12-inches, with topping choices that include cheese or sausage. On first bite, I immediately noticed the quality of the ingredients, especially the sausage.
“The uniqueness [of the pizza]will come in the ingredients [each restaurant uses],” Dino said. Going on to explain that all of the ingredients used on Kiki’s gluten-free deep dish, are the same ingredients that Dino’s uses on Gullivers regular deep dish pizzas—fresh mozzarella cheese, a signature sauce, and sausage from Anichini Brothers Wholesale Meats.
As I turned my attention to the crust, I wondered if eating gluten-free pizza all the time had altered my taste buds and that I had become brainwashed into thinking that something was good when really it wasn’t. But I have to say, Kiki’s gluten-free deep dish was truly good. The texture was right, and it didn’t fall apart. It featured the same cooked crunch that Gullivers is known for. I would order another one in a heartbeat.
The only downside was that the back part of the crust was a burnt. Dino mentioned this before I could even bring it to his attention. He said they were still working on finding the proper amount of cooking time before the pizzas were frozen. Cooking it less will prevent the burnt edges, but it still needs to be cooked enough to stay together and remain fresh. Kiki said that if you cook the pizza at home without putting in a pan, it will also yield a softer crust.
In addition to Kiki’s gluten-free deep dish, Gullivers offers gluten-free pastas and salads. In the future, Dino and Kiki are looking to create new, gluten-free appetizers, foccacias, and desserts and will be relying heavily on Peter (who is now nine) for guidance.
“He is our chief taste tester,” Kiki said. “There are actual products that we scrapped based on his recommendations.” Kiki followed this statement with a smiley face emoji-con.
In terms of restaurants, right now, Kiki’s Gluten-Free Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza is only available at Gullivers. Pizzas can also be ordered online at Kiki’s Gluten-Free Foods and delivered straight to your home by Artizone. In addition to the sausage and cheese pizzas available at Gullivers, Kiki’s online store offers a dairy-free vegan option as well. Dino said that, in the future, they hope to market and sell Kiki’s deep dish crust to other restaurants who can then top the crusts with their own ingredients. Dino also hopes to eventually give Gullivers’ patrons the ability to customize their own gluten-free deep dish pizzas with toppings of their choice.
Gullivers Pizza & Pub
272 W Howard St
Chicago, IL 60645
Monday-Thursday 11:00 AM-11:00 PM
Friday-Saturday 11:00 AM-12:00 AM
Sunday Noon-11:00 PM