Talk about crust. That's the first thing you notice about Sullivan Street Bakery's breads. Here's bakery founder and owner Jim Lahey: "The crust of bread has to do with how bread is cooked. The crust is something that forms during the cooling process. I like cooking things to their highest expression. I like the contrast of soft and crunchy. I like to taste the by-products of lacto-fermentation in dough. That's what gives a unique flavor to the crust."
Jim Lahey became passionate about bread as an art student on a study trip to Italy during the 1980s. He says, "I loved its texture and flavor and compatibility with other foods that with a history of craft. Italy was where milk mattered, cheese mattered, and what the pigs ate who were turned into prosciutto mattered." Back in New York, you could buy bufala mozzarella, but all you had to put it on was Wonder Bread or second-rate Italian loaves from Arthur Avenue. Jim returned to Italy to study bread-making, coming to admire Italian bakers' teamwork, knowledge, and deep respect for tradition.
In 1992, he started baking in his garage in Williamsburg, selling loaves from a card table setup at street fairs. Two years later, he opened Sullivan Street Bakery and soon gained renown for pizze and his crusty Italian loaves. In 2000, he split with his partners and took the Sullivan Street Bakery name up to a cavernous facility on far West 47th Street. Here Jim lives in an apartment upstairs and hovers over every aspect of the baking process, scribbling exhortations with magic markers on the walls and ovens. For him, the art of bread-making is all about process, about following those same methods that he learned watching the Italian bakers at work.
Sullivan Street Bakery's crustiest and most popular bread is its pane di comune. This long loaf is generously sprinkled with wheat bran and then baked until it's dark. When you bite into it, the crust has an amazing combination of crunch and crackle thanks to the wheat bran. The dark baking gives it a slightly bitter flavor, while inside the soft and fairly dry crumb gives off a faint sourdough tang. A slice of pane di comune makes a perfect base for a mound of unctuous and slightly sweet prosciutto di Parma.
It's easy to see why Jim's favorite bread is his truccione sare. This is a big, well-browned loaf with a nice split down its back. Slightly softer than the pane di comune's, the crust is chewy and pleasantly bitter. It encases a delicious, moist crumb--made from 40 percent wheat flour--with warm and nutty flavor. After tasting a chunk with his dinner, an eight-year-old said, "I want this for my lunch tomorrow."
With so many crummy, sponge-like ciabattas floating around the city, it's hard to give this loaf any respect. That is, until you taste the Sullivan Street Bakery ciabatta. This is a simple yeast bread whose devil is in the details of the baking process. The ciabatta that comes out of the 47th Street ovens has a chewy, slightly crackly crust and a moist crumb with a beautiful hole structure. The American impulse would be to stuff it with meat and cheese; I say tear off a hunk and dip a corner into a pool of olive oil.
For a bread on the opposite end of the flavor scale, the semi di sesamo is off the charts. It's a medium-sized loaf with another split along the back, and sesame seeds embedded into its sides. Turn it over, however, and you'll see that the bottom is thickly encrusted with more sesame seeds well-toasted from the oven floor. The baking process infuses every cubic inch of the bread with a deep sesame aroma that only a sharp cheese could stand up to. In a way, it's a little like Jim Lahey himself--intense, almost overwhelming, and all about the bread.