Flour, water, yeast, and salt. Back in 1903, a Neapolitan immigrant named Joe Parisi opened the Parisi Bakery at 198 Mott Street in Little Italy. The residents of that stretch of Mott were almost all from the Naples area, and Joe baked for them the kind of loaves that they knew from the old country. The basic dough was just flour, water, yeast, and salt. From that, Joe fashioned a variety of dense and chewy white breads with good crusts—rolls, long loaves that looked like puffy baguettes, round breads, lard bread, biscuits, and special Easter breads. Whenever Frank Sinatra was in town, he would send one of his daughters down in a limo to pick up four loaves.
In 1968, Joe handed the bakery over to his son Bob, who bought a larger bakery space at 290 Elizabeth Street nearby and kept the Mott Street address open as a deli. The next big change came in the early nineteen-eighties, when they added semolina breads to their line-up. And then in 1992, Mike Parisi took over the head baker job from his father. Inside the bakery, the dough is still made from flour, water, yeast, and salt, then rolled by hand, and baked in a big wood-fired oven. Outside, the neighborhood has changed completely, with Chinatown creeping up from the south and gentrification encroaching from the north. Still, 109 years after it was opened, the Parisi Bakery endures.
The Parisi Bakery's biggest seller is its hero roll, which is distributed to restaurants around the Tristate area. The essence of a hero roll is that it has to be able to stand up to a sloppy filling, like meatball hero sauce, without falling apart. The Parisi roll is thick and dense, with good aroma and a crust that's chewy but not quite crisp. You should try it in a sandwich from the Parisi family's deli, say stuffed with mozzarella and juicy red peppers doused in balsamic vinegar. It's enough for two hungry construction workers.
The same dough makes the bastone, the big long loaf favored by the few Italian-Americans left in the neighborhood, and my favorite, the round panella. The keys to this squat bread are its size and shape. Because it's round, the bakers keep it in the oven a little longer, so it has a darker, crunchier crust, yet the interior keeps its moisture and lovely yeasty aroma. It's my choice for slicing and topping with a few slabs of soppressata.
To avoid all that slicing work, head straight to Parisi's excellent prosciutto bread, which the old-timers know as lard bread. This ring-shaped loaf is thick with shards of prosciutto, and its moist texture (that's the lard speaking) fills your stomach on a cold winter day. You can imagine it as an all-inclusive, energy-rich meal for the Italian immigrant workers who built the buildings that made city great.
Finally, the semolina bread, the new kid on the block, looks like an Italianate baguette with a faint yellow tinge from the semolina. The seeded version has a good sesame flavor and hole structure and isn't quite as massive as the hero roll. It's the choice if you want a great Parisi bread but don't want to commit to a massive hunk of loaf.
Today, Parisi Bakery is being steered by the able hands of head baker Mike Parisi. However, the success of family businesses like this always depends on the desires of the next generation. Vinny, I know you're still in grade school, but it's all up to you!