Sullivan Street Bakery
533 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036 (b/n 10th and 11th Aves; map), 212-265-5580; sullivanstreetbakery.com
Service: Friendly, if occasionally haphazard
Setting: A modern retail counter with clean lines in front of a full-fledged wholesale bread bakery, with three stools for eating in
Must-Haves: Pizza, sandwiches, stecca, apple turnover, bomboloni
Cost: $15 will get you a slice of pizza, a sandwich, a sweet, and a drink
If you're a serious eater living in New York City, the Sullivan Street Bakery's Jim Lahey should be one of your gustatory heroes. Why? Because nobody—and I mean nobody—has provided serious eaters with more insane deliciousness at a more than fair price since Lahey first opened on Sullivan Street 14 years ago. When he first opened, Jim made only his trademark well-baked dark bread with the crunchy crust and tender innards; his revelatory pizza bianca; and his room temperature pizzas.
But in recent years Lahey and his merry band of bakers have greatly expanded beyond his initial trio of dough-based things into sandwiches and other foods that play to Lahey's strengths: a profound understanding of the inherent appeal of deftly combined flour, water, sugar, salt, and fat; and a deep appreciation of the sanctity of high quality ingredients and how to use them to maximum delicious effect. Now that Lahey has been spending most of his time perfecting his recipes for his about-to-open (January 2, according to his assistant) pizzeria Co., I thought it would be useful to take stock of where Sullivan Street Bakery is right now.
I have previously waxed rhapsodic about former Lahey partner Monica Von Thun Calderon's whole pizza bianca at Grandaisy. but the whole pizza bianca here is the best 6 foot-long food ever made, and makes the whole one at Grandaisy seems like a miniature in comparison. And at $25, it's only a little more than $4 a foot. But I don't think I have ever given sufficient props to pizza bianco's tangy, salty, stubby first cousin, the bianca con pecorino.
Sullivan Street's pane pugliese, semi di sesamo, pullman loaf, and stirato (baguette) are all worthy of rapture—either eaten plain with butter or olive oil, or as sandwich foundations—but two newer, lesser-known breads have recently captured my fancy. The pana casa reccio ($7.00) is a 70% sourdough, 30% whole wheat loaf that perhaps best captures the essence of Lahey's bread-baking genius. The outside is dark and magnificently crunchy, and the inside is light and tender and just moist enough.
Lahey has recently made his initial foray into health bread with a multi-grain pullman bread ($5.25). Everyone at Serious Eats World Headquarters practically moaned with pleasure when I brought one back to the office, with good reason. It's the first multi-grain bread I've ever had that actually had all the things I look for in great bread: gorgeous hole structure, crunchy exterior, and soft and light interior dough. That it's somehow more light than dense is a miracle of modern bread baking.
Sullivan Street Bakery's sandwiches (all $7.00) are smallish, incredibly satisfying, and constructed ever so carefully of high quality Italian and local ingredients. These sandwiches are Italian minimalist in style, so as far as I'm concerned they have the right ratio of bread to filling. If you like overstuffed sandwiches these are not for you.
A simple mortadella sandwich is made memorable with a slice of mozzarella di bufala and a knife full of Italian jarred red pepper spread that packs just enough heat. It's the bologna sandwich you wish you had eaten as a kid.
The panino di manzo is roast beef roasted at the bakery in a crust of freshly ground black and green pepper and coarse sea salt) topped with, sun-dried tomatoes, house-made aioli, and arugula. When the roast beef is not cooked past medium-rare this is a fine sandwich. Warning: the aioli is intensely garlicky.
The Cubano features prosciutto di Parma, house-made roasted pork with gruyere cheese, house-made mustard, aioli, and pickles. It's not exactly a classic Cuban sandwich (it's not made in a sandwich press, for starters) so purists might be unhappy. Serious eaters will not be.
If you like Lahey's pizza bianco you will love the steccas ($2.50 for a half, $4.75 whole), foot-long chewy breadsticks studded with tomatoes, olives, roasted garlic cloves. Steccas make a perfect walking lunch.
The lightest savory pleasure at SSB is a brioche square ($2.50) with melted mascarpone cheese studded with little chunks of ham.
The room-temperature pizzas should enter your lunchtime thinking. Carbohydrate and crunch addicts will gravitate to the patate (potato) pizza. Each slice is a perfectly realized rectangular room-temperature potato tart. The cauliflower pizza is a fabulous creation that introduced me and my son to the joys of cauliflower. Both the mushroom and the artichoke pizzas are also sublime. Ironically, it is the tomato pie that most often comes up short here. Its crust can occasionally be stiff and leathery.
When Sullivan Street first opened Lahey made no sweets. Now there are many, including:
Light, greaseless bombolini ($2.50), ethereal jam or vanilla custard-filled doughnuts made with a panettone dough.
A revelatory dark, moist chocolate cake, tortino di cioccalato, made special with the addition of what could be called Lahey's fairy dust: bread crumbs and sea salt. If you want to know what an NC-17-rated Nestle's Crunch bar would taste like, try one of these.
An apple turnover that may not even be Italian, but man, is it buttery and good.
And in a world filled with unlovable panettone (please forgive me, Carey) Lahey has actually created a chocolate-chip version that I adore.
Less successful is the brioche al frutto stagionale ($2.50), a fancy-pants name for an undistinguished fruit pastry made with brioche dough.
I could say that Jim Lahey is at the peak of his dough-making prowess right now, but that would be selling him short. I have a feeling his endless fascination with flour, water, salt, and sugar insures that there will be many more not-yet-developed delicious things for serious eaters to sample in the years to come. I for one can't wait.
Footnote: Some serious eaters complain that Sullivan Street Bakery's baked goods, pizza, and sweets, are too expensive. I beg to differ. Seriously delicious ounce for ounce, dollar for dollar, Jim Lahey's church of dough is one of New York's greatest food bargains.