At the age of 32, Mary Siragusa got sick.
Her doctors recommended she see a specialist immediately. Already a believer in the power of whole foods -- as a teenager, she served sprouted grain sandwiches to lifeguards out of a juice bar in North Miami Beach -- Siragusa decided to try improving her health on her own terms. She walked out of the doctor's office, picked up an Acme juicer, and started her first juice cleanse.
Though she prefers not to speak about her previous ailments in detail, she claims it worked; she immediately felt better and has been trying to help others manage their health and well-being through whole foods ever since.
Along with her daughter Francesca, who holds a certificate in holistic nutrition from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Siragusa started an at-home meal plan four years ago. The mother/daughter team prepared gluten-free meals with some raw options based off the Hippocrates Institute protocol for at-home customers, as well as patients at local health and wellness centers. The Hippocrates Institute in West Palm Beach is a world-recognized health and wellness institute that touts the benefits of a vegan diet rich in living enzymes.
Six months ago, the pair opened Fresh First on 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale, the first place in South Florida to earn the title of "Great Kitchen" by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA).
It's a safe haven for anyone with dietary issues or allergies; everything is entirely gluten-, corn-, and peanut-free, with a large selection of raw, vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian (fish and poultry), dairy-free, and ethically conscious options.
Everything is made in-house; including fresh-pressed juices, salad dressings, vegan cookies, special-order birthday cakes, and the constantly changing quinoa cupcakes prepared with homemade seasonal jam and goat cheese frosting.
To ensure everyone onsite is knowledgeable about gluten intolerances and celiac disease, each employee is required to sit through NFCA training. The restaurant is so stringently gluten-free that staff members are not permitted to bring their own food on the premises for fear of cross-contamination.
While neither Mary nor Francesca has gluten intolerances, they knew they wanted to run a healthy restaurant, to do something to make it stand out; according to them, the results couldn't be more gratifying.
"We recently had a couple of kids come in that had gluten and dairy allergies," said Francesca. "I've been working on dairy-free bread, and I offered to whip up a batch for them. So I put it in the waffle maker to cook it quickly and brought it out; their eyes lit up. The mom said, 'This is the first time they've ever had fresh bread.' That felt good."
Francesca is responsible for the baked goods, and Mary oversees the rest of the kitchen, but the two work together to create dishes that are not just safe but satisfying.
The grilled cheese ($11.25) combines exotic cardamom and warming cinnamon with match-sticked Granny Smith apples, white cheddar, and Brie on Francesca's savory waffle bread for a dish that is refined and playful at the same time.
The pea and roasted garlic soup -- one of the rotating soups of the day -- is sweet, slightly verdant, and savory; it's a lighter and just-as-flavorful alternative to the smoky pork-filled common split pea.
The zucchini puttanesca ($13.95) is made with long strands of zucchini tossed with crisp sprouted garbanzo beans and lentils, cherry tomatoes, red pepper, Kalamata olives, and scallions in a garlic lemon sauce. The entirely raw dish is robust yet refreshing; enough to turn even the hardest raw skeptics into believers.
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The puttanesca is also one of the raw dishes that is frequently offered in the restaurant's monthly meal plans. Based on principles taught at the Hippocrates Institute, the raw cleanse meal plan combines in-house, cold-pressed juices with solid organic raw food.
"It's for people who would like to do a juice cleanse but aren't ready to give up food for three to five days," says Mary.
Since opening their doors, the bubbly mother/daughter team has been feeling the karmic payoff of its dietary-conscious eatery.
"I never realized how rewarding this would be," says Francesca. "People come in and cry, because they can order anything off the menu, because it's safe."