Twenty-three years ago, the Genoroso family took over an old bakery on the northern edge of Bensonhurst, deep in the heart of Brooklyn. The bakery came with a big, brick-lined, century-old oven, heated by coal. The Genorosos started mixing flour water, yeast, salt, and a little sugar (for taste and color), letting it rise, and putting it in the oven. They were trying to replicate the big, peasant-style loves that families used to make in Amantea, their hometown back in Calabria. What came out of that coal-fired oven wasn't an exact replica of pane calabrese, but everyone agreed that it was good. The Royal Crown bakery was in business.
The basic Royal Crown loaf is a great New York City bread. Like many of our best culinary offerings, it has its roots in the immigrant experience. Royal Crown makes its loaves shaped like baguettes, ciabattas, and puffy rings, but the classic loaf is a big, round, flour-covered dome. Its crust is lumpy and achieves a delicate balance between too thick (the kind that tears your gums when chewed) and too thin. Cut into it, and out wafts the comforting scent of toasted flour. Inside, the soft crumb is interspersed with big and small holes that make easy passage for olive oil, honey, or any other runny thing you want to spread on top. It's equally good for dipping into oil or sauce or making rustic sandwiches with piles of salumi and cheese.
Royal Crown started out making just bread and cookies, but over the years has expanded into a wide range of Southern Italian bakery specialties. You can also buy breads stuffed with broccoli rabe, prosciutto, or figs; taralli (a kind of Italian pretzel) and friselli (a flat, dry crust used as a base for bruschetti); and on weekends, excellent pizzas. At Easter, Frank Genoroso and his father make a thick,artery-clogging pizza rustica stuffed with eggs, cheese, and ham, and the typical pastelle di grano, or grain pie.
At Christmas, the family really pulls out all the stops, using a slew of old country recipes for specialties like turdilli, mostaccioli, and honeyed fig kebabs compiled by Mother Genoroso. The flashiest holiday treats are the big pyramids of sprinkle-covered struffoli (baked honey balls) and excellent panettone, but those in the know go for the chestnut bread behind the counter. Shaped roughly like a flattened baking potato, this little loaf usually comes with a roast chestnut embedded in the top. Don't worry if the bottom is slightly singed--that's the way it's supposed to be. The way to eat it is to cut off slices with a sharp knife and then nibble. The interior is dense, slightly sweet, and rich with chestnut flavor--perfect with espresso.
Royal Crown also sells its bread to dozens of restaurants around the city, including Carmine's, and in New Jersey. Two blocks north on 14th Avenue, Frank Genoroso's children run Magnifico, a restaurant and take-out joint, where you can get meatball heroes on Royal Crown bread, eggplant parmigiana, and other Italian-American specialties. There's also a Royal Crown bakery in Staten Island (run by a Genoroso brother) but its bread comes from an electric oven. The ingredients may be the same, but coal-heated bricks a century old make a difference.