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Jennifer Esposito Takes THR's Taste Test

Jennifer's Way Bakery Jennifer Esposito Inset - H 2013
Courtesy of Jennifer's Way; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

The allergy-friendly bakery owner from CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and “Crash” talks shellfish, cauliflower bechamel sauce and a square Sicilian pizza that’s to die for.

For nearly four months now, Jennifer Esposito has voluntarily indulged in pop tarts, bagels, ice cream cakes and unsliced Italian loaves of bread. It’s a rarity for Esposito -- four years ago, the actress noted for the Academy Award-winner Crash and playing detective Jackie Curatola for three seasons of CBS’ cop drama Blue Bloods was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease affecting the small intestine and caused by reaction to wheat proteins, resulting in various severe physical reactions like hives, stomach aches and fatigue. At her recently opened, allergy-friendly Jennifer's Way Bakery in New York City, Esposito’s chalkboard-wall menu features moist and flavorful baked goods previously banished from her plate indefinitely -- all of which are her personal recipes, each free of gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts and refined sugar.

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“It’s taking back the control from a disease that there really is no controlling -- you can eat as much gluten-free as you want, but an autoimmune [disease] is an autoimmune disease,” says Esposito, who sweetens treats like quinoa bread, carrot cake and miniature chocolate chip cookies with maple sugar, syrup, honey and apple sauce. “Being able to make the things that I loved -- and to be able to feed people that feel the same way -- is beautiful, and so much fun.”

The bakery (263 E 10th St., 646.682.9501) boasts quaint details -- vintage lunch boxes, wooden trays and an overjoyed Esposito as a child on doggie bag labels -- and tucks well in to the clean-eating scene of NYC’s East Village. Magazine clippings about Celiac disease line the entryway’s wall, and toys (Mad Libs, Rubik’s Cubes) top a large dining table. As the actress greets incoming customers while shuffling tins in the oven, her beau, model Louis Dowler, is often manning the counter, wearing the bakery tee that reads “Celiac can kiss my gluten-free muffin.” A portion of the proceeds benefits Jennifer’s Way Foundation for Celiac Education.

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JENNIFER ESPOSITO’S THR TASTE TEST

Current Fixation
“Clams and shrimp over pasta with a white wine sauce. I’m totally obsessed with it because I couldn’t have shellfish for so long -- my gut was so sensitive that I was coming up allergic to it, and now I’m not. Oh my god. I made it just the other night, a big pot of it with all these fresh cherry tomatoes, garlic, shallots and parsley. With a nice, crisp white wine, I bake a big loaf of bread and I dip it in that sauce. I used to watch people who do that in envy, and now I hold onto my bowl for an hour. It makes me feel really normal. It’s the best.”

Known for Cooking
“I make a mean butternut squash lasagna -- completely vegan -- with a bechamel sauce out of cauliflower.”

Destination Dinner
“Tuscany, hands down. Lake Cuomo. There was a little hole in the wall in Montepulciano -- I don’t remember the name, but it’s where the locals go in town. You have to go up these stairs, and basically, it was crostinis with all these different toppings, but the sheep’s cheese was from the sheep up the street, and the honey was from the bees up the block. And then they rolled out the fresh pasta al pomodoro. It was so simple, but so delicious. You don’t touch a meal like that. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to eat any of it now, but it was one of the most magical meals I’ve ever had in my life.”

Go-To Take-Out
“For me, unfortunately, those days are over. That’s one of the things I miss the most. It’s not easy for me to eat and go. But I do go to Hu Kitchen, which I think is doing a good job. They believe in a grain-free diet, so for me it’s good, because there’s no gluten anywhere in the restaurant.”

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Adventurous Bite
“I’m not a really crazy eater, even before. Fried bug? I’m not interested. I ate an entire large pizza when I was 13. I think it was 12 pieces -- just because I was hungry.”

Simply Won’t Eat
“Curry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t even smell it. Once I smell that, I’m so not happy for some reason, I don’t know why.”

Favorite Snack
“Quinoa bread. The first time I made it, I thought, ‘Do I love it?’ And then I found myself getting up in the middle of the night to make it and eat it. It’s the biggest hit here.”

Dietary Regimen
“Easy. No dairy, gluten, soy, corn or GMO. Everything organic. It’s strict. But seafood -- yes! I love fish. I just have to be really careful with the allergies.”

Preferred Company
“Louis!”

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Pet Peeve
“It’d be one answer before the disease and one answer after. But the answer now: when restaurants use the ‘gluten-free’ label in their marketing or on their menus, but then they suggest that gluten allergy or a Celiac shouldn’t have it. It makes me really upset; it’s not right. If you want to use this as your fad to get rich or whatever the hell you want to do, you better make sure it’s clean enough for a Celiac, a gluten allergy and everyone else.”

Big Wish
“For the bakery, I hope it goes as far as it can, as far as I can. There are definitely people who want this kind of food. If it tastes just as good or better -- why wouldn’t you rather have something that’s better for you? It can be done and done well, without preservatives and crap. It just takes a little bit more effort, and a little bit more money ... I also want a line of my products in stores that people know is safe for Celiacs, but also safe and healthy for anyone.”

Embarrassing Experience
“I was on a date with someone a couple years ago, and I was talking, and I went to put my face down to get my straw, and the straw went up my nose. That was fun. I don’t think I saw him again.”

Guilty Pleasure
“Quinoa chocolate chip cookies and devil’s food cake. They’re not even that guilty -- it’s quinoa and apple sauce -- but I can eat 10 of them, especially if it’s a certain time of the month. I can eat five of those cupcakes.”

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Last Meal
“The square Sicilian pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens. I would be in the hospital bed, ready, because I would not make it past probably three bites, so I would inhale it really quickly. I would be so sick to death from it, but I wouldn’t care. The square Sicilian pizza -- I don’t know what they do to that pizza! I’ve had it since I was a child; my mom, dad and sister used to get in the car, and we used to always go and get this pizza. Every time I talk about it, my mouth waters. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. It’s so scary good. The cheese is underneath the sauce, and I can’t have dairy – I can’t have any piece of that! It’s an experience. If they want to give me a call, I seriously will give them a great gluten-free crust, they can put their sauce, and we can work together.”