Brooklyn is filled with Italian bakeries, but sadly only a few of them devote themselves to making great bread. Royal Crown now sells a diminished line of loaves from a smaller space a block north from its old 14th Avenue store. Many bakeries are largely wholesale businesses that add conditioners and other agents to their doughs in order to extend their supermarket shelf life. So it's great to find a bakery like Bensonhurst's Il Fornaretto, where the bread is still made the old way, with the fewest amount of ingredients and the greatest respect for old country tradition.
Il Fornaretto was founded in 1927 by the Maggiore family from Palermo, Sicily. The bakery was originally on Mott Street, but decades ago the family joined the exodus from Little Italy to the sunnier climes of Bensonhurst. They took over an old German bakery on 17th Avenue with a coal-fired brick ove,n and ever since have been turning out Sicilian-style loaves from recipes brought over by the family patriarch from Palermo.
"We don't make any pastries or cakes or pizza," says Joe Maggiore. "We just make good quality bread, and a lot of it."
A good place to start is with Il Fornaretto's Pane di Casa ($3), a big round loaf made with just white flour, water, yeast, and salt. It comes out of the brick oven with a slightly cracked, crispy crust, and inside you find a finely-scented crumb with a medium-dense hole structure. It's just an honest, well-made bread perfect for everything from sopping up sauce to slathering with jam.
Made from the same dough as the Pane di Casa, the bakery's Cucolo ($2) is a ring-shaped loaf that's been lightly dusted with semolina. Inside, the crumb is a bit denser, giving it a bit more chew than its big brother. The Cucolo's finer hole structure makes it an excellent base for all kinds of juicy hero sandwich fillings liberally doused in oil and vinegar.
Il Fornaretto also makes a whole line of loaves based on the traditional Sicilian semolina dough. The Skinny Semolina ($1.70) is coated with sesame seeds, enclosing the classic slightly yellow and very slightly sweet semolina crumb. Frankly, it's the best semolina bread I've found in the city. It also comes in unseeded boules and bigger filones.
Beyond these basics, you should also try's the bakery's Focaccia (small, $2.25), which finds the perfect between chewy, fluffy, and oily. It's dappled with blobs of intensely-flavored tomato sauce—only wish there was more of it! From there, you should explore Il Fornaretto's prosciutto bread (available Thursday-Sunday), Olive Bread, and ciabatta, all of it well-crafted, delicious, and very reasonably priced.