Good Bread: Roberta's Pizza
A bakery grows in a shipping container in a Brooklyn yard. That yard is part of the Bushwick compound of Roberta's Pizza, whose business seems to grow and morph every day. At first, the bakery used the pizza oven during the few, early morning hours it wasn't churning out pies. Last year, the restaurant hired master oven artisan Dick Bessey to build a big wood-fired oven in one of the many shipping containers that clutter its yard. In November, the restaurant brought in Melissa Weller, who has a resume that includes stints as head baker at Per Se and Bouchon as well as work at Sullivan Street and Babbo. The loaves that she pulls out of the oven every morning rival any in the city.
My favorite is the City White, the Roberta's take on the Italian pane di campagna. Like all Melissa's loaves, it's made from natural sourdough leavening and high quality flour, in this case from King Arthur and Giusto's, the San Francisco whole grain mill. The City White is a beautiful boule that comes out of the oven with its dome slightly blackened by the heat. Normally, I'm not a fan of burnt artisan breads, but Melissa artfully uses that slight char to add a pleasantly bitter tang. The City White's chewy crust gets its crunch from a sprinkling of coarsely chopped rye berries. Inside, the crumb is gorgeous, with great hole structure and a faint glossy sheen. The combination of the aromatic, slightly sweet interior with the flavorful crust is irresistible. Sure, you can slather it with jam or a sheet of prosciutto, but there's so much going on that I say, eat it plain.
Next up is the Roberta's whole grain batard, a flattened rugby-ball-shaped loaf baked from 100% Cayuga Pure Organics flour. Its rich wheat flavor comes from the chunks of wheat bran in the flour, but it's best eaten fresh because it tends to dry out. Melissa also bakes two sizes of baguette, the skinny French Sticks and the plumper Fat Sticks. Made from King Arthur and Giusto's flours and two kinds of leavening (poolish and sourdough if you want to get technical), these baguettes have an excellent, crisp crust and a tasty, relatively dense crumb. Recently, Roberta's has begun churning its own butter for spreading on its baguettes, adding a French country feel to its shipping crate décor.
Melissa begins her day at 4:00am, when she comes in to prepare the dough for baking. The loaves are out of the oven by eight or nine, when the Roberta's pedal-powered deliveryman collects them for distribution to local restaurants and groceries. After the oven is brushed out, fresh wood is loaded in to heat it for the next day's baking. One of Melissa's challenges is that the newly renovated space for dough mixing and fermentation is separated from the oven by about 50 feet of open yard. She's learned a lot about dealing with temperature and humidity while transporting dough to the oven, but it's only blizzards that have actually stopped production. These challenges haven't slowed Roberta's plans: Next up is a retail store, which will demand another jump in production. In the meantime, you can buy the loaves at the retail counter just inside the restaurant's door and at stores like Williamsburg's Meat Hook and Greene Grape in Fort Greene.