The Best Breads
New York Magazine
June 13, 1994

The city is experiencing a bread-baking renaissance. A connoisseur's guide to the dozen greatest old-world and nouvelle bakers.

Bread was the first thing I thought of when my den-tist confronted me with a choice between a bridge and a sturdier implant as a replacement for a lost-cause tooth. Eleven years ago, when I first damaged that molar in a deli, a bagel was about the riskiest bite in town. But these days, so many great, chewy breads are available all over New York that a full set of strong teeth is vital to the good life.

The traditional ethnic bakers who have made the city so superior to the rest of America are now being joined by an array of young and innovative entrepreneurs who have a fresh idea of what makes the ideal daily bread. Semolinas and sourdoughs, ficelles and focaccia—a bread connoisseur can now choose among far more than a bakers-dozen varieties, of every imaginable taste and texture.

As Eli Zabar of Eli's Bread points out, a baker needs lots of space, a commodity not exactly in rich supply here. That's why some of the best breads are being baked far from where we find them—north of Saratoga Springs, for instance, and upstate in Boice-ville. Good markets stock many of the best breads, luckily. But if you can, buy them at the baker's shop, fresh out of the oven.

Vesuvio Bakery
Walking into Vesuvio, a closet-size shop in SoHo that opened in 1920, is like taking aromatic refuge from the studiously chic world of Dean & DeLuca just five blocks away. This is an ur-bakery that the decades could never improve. A simple array of perfectly imperfect loaves is stacked in the street-front window; the display case inside is heaped with biscotti and pepper biscuits (Italian variations on pretzels). The best choice is the round white loaf topped with just enough crunchy sesame seeds. This is old-fashioned bread, meant for sopping up a good red pasta sauce but no less satisfying under a schmear of Taleggio or a mound of roasted peppers with oozy buffalo mozzarella. (Vesuvio Bakery, 160 Prince Street, just west of West Broadway, 925-8248, is open Monday through Saturday from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M.; its bread is available at Balducci's, Dean & DeLuca, Melampo, and other shops.)

Amy's Bread
At her tiny, charming storefront in what used to be known as Hell's Kitchen, Amy Scherber turns out a dozen and a half sublime varieties that are anything but conventional white bread. Amy's is the candy store of bread bakeries. Crunchy yellow semolina loaves are studded with fennel seeds and golden raisins, an offbeat echo of Irish soda bread. Sourdough boules are flecked with fresh rosemary tossed in by the handful; olives or cheese add pungency to the savory rolls she calls twists. Scherber, a former pastry chef at the late Mondrian, even bakes chocolate rolls with the texturetid taste of her superb sourdough and real chunks of chocolate. Most breads are yeast-free, made from a natural starter with a long history, and handled the way Scherber learned in France. Her loaves are served at Bouley (a former employer) and are at many markets, including Dean & DeLuca, Balducci's, Whole Foods, and Marie's Cheese Shops. (Amy's Bread, 672 Ninth Avenue, near 46th Street, 977-3856, is open weekdays from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. and Saturdays till 6 P.M.)

Rock Hill Bakehouse
Even on days when I've over-burdened my mesh shopping bag with a dozen ears of fresh corn or two or three meaty squash, I always make room for a loaf from Rock Hill Bakehouse—that's how good its breads are. The best, the plain round sourdough, is especially heavy but worth its weight in subway tokens. No other sourdough in the city has the same rich layering of flavors under a crackly crust—the result of a natural starter and slow baking in a French oven with steam injection. Rock Hill's farm bread is even more popular, and there's always a line waiting to buy the cinnamon-raisin whole-wheat farm bread, sesame-seed semolina, and sourdough rye. Until recently, owner Michael London and his crew were turning out close to 10,000 pounds a week at his 500-square-foot farmhouse kitchen. Now trucks leave the bakery in Moreau, nine miles north of Saratoga Springs, for the long drive to the city seven nights a week. I guess the least I can do is carry a loaf 80 blocks. (Rock Hill Bakehouse, Moreau, New York, 518-692-2943; the bread is available at Balducci's, Dean & DeLuca, Grace's Marketplace, and Agata & Valentina.)

Bread Alone
Bread Alone is best known for its hearty breads—big loaves made from sourdough and bulked up with whole grains by the baker's dozen. But to my taste, what Dan Leader bakes best at his bakery in upstate Boiceville is raisin brioche, a rectangular loaf of rich, buttery, and eggy dough fragrant with cinnamon. If a bread can induce guilt, this is the one. Leader, who co-wrote Bread Alone for William Morrow, makes much of the organic flours he uses in his creations, but he obviously knows his butter as well. This is the one bread I never mind handing over a $5 bill for and not getting change in return. The best place to buy Bread Alone's loaves is at the Union Square Greenmar.ket. Zabar's has them, too, as do markets all over town, but in some places, unfortunately, the loaves are enshrouded in texture-sapping plastic. I try to avoid any bread anywhere packed in plastic; I figure I might as well buy Wonder and gum it (Bread Alone, 914-657-3328.)

Tom Cat Bakery
For its logo alone—a big black cat on a thirties orange-crate label—Tom Cat would get my bread money. Luckily, the breads are as sublime as the emblem. Noel Comess and his crew in Long Island City turn out whole wheat and white sourdough in both round and long loaves, all airy but elastic, chewy but sensual. Comess became obsessed with perfecting the quintessential bread while working as a chef at the late Quilted Giraffe. After six years there, he focused on creating a limited line of breads, with no froufrous like olives or even herbs added. "My goal is not making an enormous variety," he says. "I want to make a few breads really well.- All the baking is done in massive ovens at a romantic old foundry in the shade of the 59th Street Bridge that feels oddly like Sausalito. Comess supplies many markets, including Balducci's, Dean & DeLuca, the Cupcake Cafe, Delmonico's, Grace's Marketplace, Gentile's Market, and Marche Madison. (Torn Cat Bakery, Long Island City, 718-786-4224; Comess asks customers to buy from his retailers rather than come to the bakery itself.)

Eli's Bread
In one sense, Eli's is the McDonald's of the New York bread scene: Loaves and rolls horn this Upper East Side bakery are ubiquitous—in department stores (Macy's), on good restaurant tables, in fancy shops, and under the smoked turkey at stylish cafes. But unlike what's served under the golden arches, the prolific output of Eli's Bread is marked by consistently superb quality. (Perversely, you may pay less elsewhere than you will in Eli Zabar's own store.) Zabar was among the first to demonstrate that good bread was meant to be chewed, not just swallowed. He makes ficelles that are almost all crust, as well as softer onion sourdough baguettes, raisin-pecan loaves, garlic sourdough loaves, and farmers' breads as big as wheelbarrows. Zabar goes through 100,000 pounds of flour a week at his big bakery in Yorkville, but every single loaf is hand-formed. And it shows. (EAT., 1064 Madison Avenue, near 80th Street, 772-0022, is open daily from 7 am. to 10 pm.)

Orwasher's Bakery
Eating Orwasher's bread conjures up my mother's world, the New York of the twenties and thirties. Certainly nothing substantial has changed since the bakery opened in 1916 on a side street in Yorkville. The white tile floors, the old-time brick ovens—even the recipes—could be an exhibit in the Smithsonian. But the breads, dense, intense, stacked high in the old glass showcase, are the epitome of freshness, despite the weight of history behind them. Orwasher's is best at Old World breads, the serious ryes and pumpernickels, sold by the pound—and there's even old-time cornbread.

Maybe because of the connection to my immigrant mother's era, though, I like the Irish soda bread best: a big, heavy loaf flecked with raisins and caraway seeds, with just enough of a crust generously dusted with flour. When this is toasted, there's nothing better—except maybe a real Irish scone. (Orwasher's Bakery, 308 East 78th Street, 288-6569, is open Monday through Saturday from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. The bread is also available at Balducci's, D'Agostino, Dean & DeLuca, Bloomingdale's, Zabar's, Grace's Marketplace, and Canard & Company.)

The Bread Shop
Most whole-grain breads in New York are leaden proof of the theory of negative calories (chewing bums more than you can ingest). But the Bread Shop's five-grain and herb-flavored loaves defy the image of healthy breads so sturdy and tough they're more fiber than fun. These loaves are substantial but light, and make both great toast and superb sandwiches. Unfortunately, since they come entombed in plastic, they have a shelf life of about a day and a half once opened (the shop claims "three days to three weeks"). But I have to forgive a few wrappers when I consider the other temptations in this funky shop: airy buttermilk biscuits, monkey bread that could pass for crunchy coffee cake, and herb onion rolls thick with metted cheese. You can try them in the adjoining minuscule cafe. (Only at The Bread Shop, 3139 Broadway, near 123rd Street, 666-4343, open daily from 8 am. to 9 pm.)

D&G Bakery
D&G was the bread I cut my teeth on after breaking one on that long-ago bagel. A round, slightly flat loaf of white was my first encounter with a bread that managed to be thickly crusted but still tender, soft but chewy inside. For some reason, the round loaves are not quite what they were when they turned me into a bread fiend back in the early eighties. But the other D&G loaves baked up daily at this Little Italy institution, founded in 1963, are standing the test of time. The round rings enriched with provolone or prosciutto are heady with cracked black pepper, and the additions only accentuate the intensity of the basic white bread itself. And any longer loaf (white or whole wheat) packs a lot of flavor under a strong crust. D&G breads are best fresh from the brick oven, but you must get to the bakery early, before they sell out (eleven is way too late). Call the day before you visit to reserve the loaves you want. (D&G Bakery, 45 Spring Street, between Mott and Mulberry Streets, 226-6688, is open daily from 8 A.M. to 2 P.M.; the bread is available at East Village Cheese, Fairway, Jefferson Market, Balducci's.)

Unlike the rest of the food world, bread bakers seem to be more collaborative types, not begrudging one another a little bite of a big business. And so Torn Cat shares space and ovens with Sarah Black at Companio. Black, a former pastry chef and alumna of the Union Square Café, makes breads that are equally excellent but a different style, evoking Italy more than Berkeley. Her ciabatta is a domed oval with great texture and the flavor of both sourdough and yeast. The focaccia is airy and chewy, accented with mixed herbs, and topped with rosemary oil. Companio bread is sold at Dean & DeLuca, Delmonico's, Positively 104th, Marche Madison, Murray's Cheese Shop and Murray's Chelsea, and Neuman & Bogdanoff, and also turns up in sandwiches and bread baskets all over Manhattan. (Companio, Long Island City, 718-729-7094.)

By Regina Schrambling