It’s 3 a.m., and all the retail outlets along North University are dark and deserted–except for one. In the kitchen of Silvio’s Organic Pizza, manager JesRose Miller is preparing a batch of gluten-free pizza dough. Later, she’ll bake a chocolate cheesecake, also gluten free.

In most communities, Silvio’s would be a rarity. But in Ann Arbor, it’s one of many restaurants and groceries working to make food that’s safe for patrons who suffer from celiac disease.

Often referred to as the most under-diagnosed genetic disorder of our time, CD is an inherited, potentially life-threatening autoimmune disease. Triggered by gluten–the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley–it affects an estimated three million or more Americans. Treatment involves the complete elimination of gluten from the diet.

Arbor Farms co-owner Robert Cantelon says demand for gluten-free products “has exploded” in recent years. Cantelon and his buyers are especially proud to have discovered Toledo’s Organic Bliss, a wheat-free, gluten-free bakery that turns out “awesome” pies, scones, cakes, brownies, and cookies. Whole Foods has its own Gluten-Free Bakehouse in North Carolina, launched in 2004 under the guidance of chef Lee Tobin, himself a celiac sufferer.

As manager of marketing and member services for the People’s Food Co-op, Kevin Sharp is constantly being asked about GF products. “It’s probably the most common question we get,” he says. “We try to carry at least one gluten-free option in every department, along with related specialty items”–something that’s becoming easier, he observes, as more manufacturers offer them.

Andrea Klooster was born in France to American parents and diagnosed as a celiac at the age of two. To make sure her food was gluten free, her mother spent hours in the kitchen, “making everything from scratch.” Thirty-seven years later, she is delighted at the wide availability of GF products in Ann Arbor, even in mainstream groceries. Busch’s, Kroger, and Meijer all continue to build their gluten-free selections.

For many celiacs, dining out can be the equivalent of tiptoeing through a minefield. But a random sampling of local eateries revealed that some Ann Arbor restaurants are doing their best to change that.

Guests at Seva, the city’s oldest natural foods restaurant, can request a special gluten-free menu. At Zingerman’s Roadhouse, chef and managing partner Alex Young oversees a menu that includes gluten-free entrees, salads, and appetizers as well as his own GF creation–the Rice Grits and Bits Waffle. The Jolly Pumpkin even brews a gluten-free beer–“a heartfelt attempt,” says executive chef and managing partner Maggie Long, to create a welcoming venue for all patrons.

Ask about GF options at the Cottage Inn, and the maitre d’ will reverse a menu to feature the gluten-free list that debuted in October. Among the unexpected offerings are bruschetta and cheese bread. Likewise, Gratzi features gluten-free dishes on both its lunch and dinner menus.

Consultant Bill Damon was diagnosed with CD seventeen years ago. “In those days, I was lucky to have an excellent doctor who got to a diagnosis quickly,” Damon recalls. “He told me: ‘You’re starving to death.'” (CD damages the small intestine, reducing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.) In those days, Damon notes, there were only a few GF products available at the People’s Food Co-op and Arbor Farms. “Today, there’s a tidal wave of new products.” Equally important, the stigma has been lessened. “But,” he goes on, “people still need to recognize that there are serious long-term health issues associated with celiac disease, including possible colon cancer.”

Local celiacs owe a debt of gratitude to freelance programmer Valerie Mates, whose cyber support group and email list– –features reviews of area restaurants, stores, bakeries, and even medical practitioners. The list has been up and running since 2005, the year that Mates and her daughter were diagnosed with CD. At last count, the site had 516 members, most of them in Ann Arbor.

“Celiac can be a very isolating condition, because of how complicated it becomes to eat with your friends,” Mates observes. “Ann Arbor desperately needs a dedicated gluten-free restaurant. Also, local people with celiac disease are very undersupported by the medical community. There are fabulous celiac centers at hospitals in California, New York, Boston, and Chicago. I’d love to see a specialized celiac disease center at the U of M Hospital.”