The Gluten-Free Genius: Meet Mario Librandi of Vegan Mario’s
- Written By:Julia McVeigh
Although increasingly mainstream, “gluten-free” remains a sticking point for the average carb-consumer. Some argue, perhaps rightly so, that gluten-free products—pizzas, breads, cookies—are decidedly less tasty than their glutenous (and glutinous?) counterparts. Others, such as Dr. Mark Hyman, make the case that gluten-free foods are often higher in trans-fat, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols than their carb counterparts in order to compensate for the lack of gluten. In this sense, navigating the world of gluten-free foodstuffs is complicated at best and perilous at worst.
Which is why the story of Vegan Mario’s is all the more impressive. Founded by Mario and Amanda Librandi—a husband-and-wife team based in Ventura County, California—Vegan Mario’s is a gluten-free food company specializing in sourdough, gluten-free breads, pastas and pizzas as well as vegan condiments. Crafted ethically, lovingly and consciously—no artificial sweeteners here!—Librandi’s foodstuffs are both wildly innovative and utterly simple. Using only the finest ingredients available, Librandi obsessively experiments and refines his recipes until they’re pitch-perfect.
And we do mean perfect: This past year, Vegan Mario’s won first place for Best Gluten-Free Bread at the World Bread Awards. Ahead, we spoke to Librandi about the mission of Vegan Mario’s, his sourcing and recipe-making methodologies and his award-winning gluten-free creations.
The backstory of Vegan Mario’s is pretty inspiring. Can you relay along to our readers how and why you and your wife created the company?
After my wife, Amanda, was diagnosed with Pericarditis at age 29, we traveled to the Cleveland Clinic to see the best doctors. They prescribed large doses of anti-inflammatory pharmaceutics indefinitely, and the pills didn’t help her feel any better. We felt we had no choice but to take matters into our own hands. We researched intensely and discovered inflammation-reducing diets; we read that a radical diet consisting entirely of fruit and vegetables might help, so we switched our eating habits right away. We ate only raw fruit and vegetables—a cleanse, of sorts.
Twelve short days later, Amanda was off all of her medications for her incurable ailment and the symptoms have never resurfaced. That was over eight years ago. Once we had experienced the rapid healing effects that a simple dietary change could bring, we were hooked! We felt like we had discovered gold.
Why are you committed to a Vegan diet and lifestyle?
Our initial path to veganism was for health, but the other positive impacts for the animals and the environment only cemented our decision as the right one. Although going vegan takes quite a bit of courage, it’s an obvious choice if you are willing to be truthful with yourself. I still remember that first entirely plant-based month. I laugh about it now but I was genuinely worried that there was some sort of vitamin I would be missing.
Since then, I’ve educated myself and continue to do so in the arena of food and health. When the American Dietetic Association came out saying a vegan diet was appropriate for all stages of life including pregnancy and breastfeeding, that eased any lingering concerns.
What are some of the founding principles of Vegan Mario’s? In other words, what is your mission?
The mission of Vegan Mario’s is to introduce as many people as possible to this reality: Healthy food can taste amazing. We specialize in making gluten-free and probiotic foods that deliver some of the cleanest fuel possible: Sourdough breads and sourdough sweets, fermented cashew cheeses and our newest item, gluten-free sourdough pasta. Our products serve as healthy staples for your own nutritious meals.
Describe the sourcing process for your ingredients—what are the standards for procurement?
One of my recipe formulation tenets is that less is more; it’s always better to have a few ingredients rather than a huge list. To be able to pull off amazing food with only a few ingredients means that those ingredients need to be exceptional, so our ingredients are only the finest. The cashews we use, for example, are kept in cold storage. You won’t find that practice in most food establishments. We care about our ingredients because we care about our customers. Everything is always organic or wild-crafted, and if we can’t source it, we won’t make it.
In terms of recipe development, how did and do you create your various recipes? What is your culinary background?
I’ve never been institutionally trained in the culinary arts. All my knowledge is from experience. I grew up in the restaurant business. My parents are both master chefs from Italy, so they taught me all about food from a very young age. I was tossing my first pizzas in the air when I was eight years old!
I’ve always loved being in the kitchen; it’s my laboratory. While living in Brooklyn during my time at Pratt Institute, I was able to expand my flavor palate immensely. Up until that time I had only really made Italian food, so New York City really allowed me to taste and then recreate flavors from around the world.
My recipes are created out of necessity. When something from my former non-vegan, non-gluten-free life pops up that I want, I make an updated version! I believe that anything can be made gluten-free and vegan, and I’m always excited for a challenge. For example, the bread business started from my obsession with pizza. I first developed the gluten-free pizza crust recipe. Then I discovered the ill effects of instant yeast, so I had to convert the recipe to sourdough—and that was the magic! The sourdough made my gluten-free recipe next level, so I had to try making a loaf. And it worked!
Your sourdough bread is wildly popular, an award-winner! Can you tell us a little bit about how you perfected the recipe?
After witnessing countless people crying tears of joy when they first tried my Buckwheat "Rye-less Rye" loaves, I knew this was the loaf to submit to the World Bread Awards. I just love Rye bread: The flavors are so much more complex than the Italian bread I grew up eating.
Buckwheat was one of the first gluten-free flours I experimented with, so I was familiar with the flavor. After I had successfully created a quinoa sourdough loaf, I thought it would be pretty straightforward. I used buckwheat in place of the quinoa and gave it a go. The moisture level was off, but that would be an easy fix. The taste was amazing—almost a perfect sourdough rye—just missing the caraway seeds! So, the next time I mixed up some dough, I added the caraway and let it ferment. When I baked it, the air had the sweet smell of caraway and rye! I thought this would be it. It was.
People connect with this bread; it takes them back to a time when gluten-free wasn’t even a thing yet. And I think that’s as special for them as it is for me.