Bread, at its most elemental, is flour and water. Few foods are as humble, even fewer as powerful. Why else would restaurants sink so much time and energy into something given away for free? Because bread service sets the tone for the meal. A single slice is equal parts geotag and fluffer, turning on the brain for the food to follow. Attended by butter or olive oil, served by the basketful or rationed by a waiter wielding silver-plated tongs, bread is big at many of our local restaurants. Here is the upper crust.
Zeppoli At 10 every morning, Joey Baldino starts the dough at his cozy Collingswood BYOB Zeppoli. "We let it rise, bang it down at 1, let it rise again, bake by 3, and it's just coming out of the oven for start of service at 5," he says. And that's just for the crusty, cake-like semolina/durum loaves speckled with sesame seeds, a recipe he learned from Anna Tasca Lanza, the Lidia Bastianich of Sicily. Baldino also bakes rosemary-embroidered focaccia and on occasion even adds savory anchovy-and-mozzarella zeppoli (little Italian donuts) to the bread service, attended by olive oil and marinated olives. Why all the work? "When people come here, I want them to experience that my food, from the bread to the gelato, is made by hand," says Baldino. "You can tell a lot about a restaurant by the bread it serves."
Talula's Garden "Bread service is all about making people feel cozy, warm and invited," says Aimee Olexy, who's been getting cred for bread since she baked it in little terracotta flowerpots at Django. At Talula's Garden, she wanted her carbs to possess the same "personal nature," so she developed the buttery baby brioche buns servers brush with seasonal compound butter (often ramp in spring, apricot-thyme in summer) before delivery. "It's a gift to the diner that sets the precedent right away that we're doing something special," says Olexy. On busy nights when the restaurant is in full swing, that can mean more than 600 of Olexy's "mouthfuls of goodness," all shaped by hand. "It's definitely a lot of extra work," she says, "and the guys in the kitchen like to remind me every day."
Koo Zee Doo "In Portugal, instead of a knife in your left hand, you have a piece of bread," says Carla Goncalves, who handles the baking at Koo Zee Doo, the Portuguese BYOB she owns with chef and husband David Gilberg. Her reputation as a carb whisperer goes back to the ethereal biscuits she once baked at The Ugly American, but at KZD she serves something a bit more thematic: rustic white sourdough and broa, a fine-crumbed Portuguese cornbread, with salted butter and snacky you-peel-'em lupini beans.
Bistrot La Minette Only the baguette will do for bread service at Peter Woolsey's spirited, traditional Bistrot La Minette. "On a dry day, we have the best baguette in the city," Woolsey deadpans. "Rain is the only thing that fucks us up." Baguettes are temperamental creatures, requiring precise levels of humidity to create the correct crumb, brownness and thin-skinned crust. "Bakeries in Paris have computers that automatically calculate the humidity in the air and adjust the recipe so the baguettes come out the same every time." Woolsey (unlike, say, Parc) doesn't even have the proper oven, but with guidance from Marcel Baud, a retired third-generation French baker who also happens to be his father-in-law, he's been able to perfect Bistrot's baguette, sliced and paired with soft Plugra butter dusted with fleur de sel. "It's the first impression," Woolsey says. "If you get really good bread at a restaurant, you know what the kitchen is capable of."
Chifa Tropical Chifa is the seersucker suit of the Garces Group wardrobe. The house bakers nail that breezy vibe with the fittingly exotic pan de bono. "Pan de bono is a South American bread traditionally made from yucca flour," explains chef/owner Jose Garces. "We use tapioca starch for ours, which lends it the same elastic, glutenous texture, but is gluten-free." Enriched with manchego and queso fresco, these starchy, round powder puffs have just enough savoriness to balance their addicting schmear: sweet guava "butter" kissed with black vinegar and sriracha.
Kanella "You could remove everything under the sun from my diet, but if you remove bread, I'll die." Never one to exaggerate, Konstantinos Pitsillides, Philly's resident Cypriot ambassador, says this with conviction, stressing the importance of bread, olive oil, lemons and olives on the dinner table when he was growing up in Limassol on the island's southwest coast. At his breezy BYOB, Kanella, he's all about preserving tradition, even if it means importing olives from his father's farm for olive bread or fermenting under-ripe grapes to give his sourdough its tang, a trick from the medieval days. These are just two of the breads in Pitsillides' wheelhouse; they rotate along with complimentary dips like nutty tahini, a caper/garlic/olive oil setup and sweet Armenian tomato reduction scented with coriander, clove and cinnamon. "This shows a commitment to the customer," Pitsillides explains. "I don't even factor it into my food costs."
Las Bugambilias "What bread and butter is to American restaurants, chips and salsa is to Mexican ones," says Michelle Zimmerman, who owns Las Bugambilias with her husband of 18 years, chef Carlos Molina. "When customers come in and taste our salsas, it lets them know that we are not going to use something that is already made for us." The bright, brash bite of Molina's salsa Mexicana (diced tomato, onion, Serrano chili, cilantro, lime) doesn't come from a jar. Tucked into a little ceramic crock, that dip always accompanies the chips, with a second salsa (clove-laced chipotle, tangy tomatillo) rotating in like relief pitchers.
Modo Mio The bread at Peter McAndrews' ristorantes is so sick, you wouldn't guess the chef grew up on Stroehmann. "It's what we'd have with dinner. And for dessert, my grandfather, who grew up during the Depression, would eat a slice every night with butter and sugar." McAndrews began baking around 11 years old, kneading a passion best experienced at Modo Mio, where the servers saw slices off a 20-pound pane Pugliese. Made entirely by touch (no recipe) and named for the hardscrabble, sun-bleached region on Italy's heel, this loaf has a dark, jagged crust as thick as the cover of a hardback book (the secret is molasses) and a dense, chewy interior whose subtle tang comes from seven-year-old biga added to each batch. "This bread is volatile," McAndrews says. "If you don't give it the right love and attention, it will fail on you." But he goes to the trouble anyway, because "great bread is sign of good things to come" — especially when accompanied by lemon-y house ricotta and meaty porcini oil.