We’re probably; I guess you could say, “the lowest price in the city for good bread," says Lou Mosca, owner of De Palma Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia. "I mean, $1.10 a loaf. And it's a pound-and-a-half loaf. The thing is, we don't do any deliveries at all. I figure, people go out of their way to come here and buy bread, I can give them a little discount in the price. I think even Stroehmann's costs more than us. So we might be the cheapest bread you can buy, any kind of bread. But this isn't just any kind of bread. This is bread for bread freaks."
De Palma bread is possibly the most easily recognized of all local quality breads. The loaves are immense, the crust thick and chewy, with a beautiful honey color "sometimes darker than honey," Lou says. "I got a lot of customers want bread dark. They say, 'I want to hear it crunch between my teeth.' "
Lou thinks the reason his bread is so good is that he's never changed anything in the 20 years since he bought the De Palma bakery. "Old Mrs. De Palma, a wonderful woman, a great lady, who lived to 94 years old, she told me, 'Don't change it.' 1 never did. We have the big old brick oven. Some bakeries with brick ovens switched over to oil burners to fire them up; they say you can control the heat better. We still use a coal fire. That means, when we bake, we pull out the first loaves, we have to wait 15 minutes till the heat goes back up again. So? You couldn't get our crust without coal. Besides that, we don't do any tricks —- like brush the bread with sugar water to get a dark color. Or put in preservatives, or oil, or have special heated rooms to make the bread raise quick. This is bread the old-fashioned way. Made with flour, water, yeast, a little salt. Nothing else.
"My first baker, Marty Ryan, he's been with me years, he comes in at 1 a.m. Depending on the weather, and what he thinks —it's entirely up to him — he makes the dough. Cold weather, we let it rise a little longer. Warm weather, not so long. Sometimes we use cold water. If it’s going to be a real hot day, he might even put a little ice in the water. It's something he knows. Then we hand-form the loaves, put it in trays, and it raises naturally. People call this Italian bread. But it's not just Italian. Some of my best customers are Germans, Hungarians, Polish — to them, it's their bread. This is the bread you'll find anywhere in Europe. Just plain good bread. There's nothing better you can eat."
De Palma makes a long loaf and two different kinds of round loaf. "The round loaves both weigh a pound and a half, but they look completely different," says Lou. "One we put one cut in the top, it rises up just like a dome. You get a beautiful big slice out of a one-cut bread. The other one, we make four cuts in the top — it comes out flatter. People like it because it's easier to stack in the freezer. I get a lot of customers buying 15, 20 loaves at a time. And some of them, I'm pretty sure, are resalers. They go to some farmers' market or Reading Terminal, they jack up the price a little. Maybe they get two or three times what I get. So? It just shows, people will pay good money for good bread.
Any bread that is not sold the day it is baked is cut into thick slices and toasted in De Palma's brick oven, which dries them into a kind of light, airy, beyond crunch crunchiness. You can also find them at other small Italian or Old World bakeries (though to me, De Palma's toasts are best of all). Toasts will keep for weeks in a breadbox, or any other closed container. Many people dip them in coffee for breakfast, but the greatest of all recipes is toast and tomatoes. This is called fettunta in Italian, but is popular everywhere; one of the best versions I ever had was in an Argentine restaurant in Valencia.
Try this with ripe Jersey or Pennsylvania beefsteak tomatoes, just now coming into season, and you will never again go back to those sloppy tomato and lettuce sandwiches that bury the taste of tomato under mayonnaise and bread, leaving the best part — that delicious tomato juice —- sitting on the plate after you've finished eating.
Here's a recipe for fettunta, adapted from A Tuscan in the Kitchen, by Pino Luongo (Crown, S24.95). Buy toasts, or make your own by cutting good bread into one-inch slices and toasting till golden in a 350-degree oven. Cut a clove of garlic in half and scrape cut edge over toasts. As you scrape, the garlic will disintegrate and release juice and flavor. Cut some dead ripe tomatoes in half. Rub cut half over toasts, squeezing out all juice and seeds, which will also be absorbed, and squeeze as much pulp as you can on top. Pour on about a teaspoon of extra-virgin olive oil. Ideally, there should be nothing left of the tomato but the skin, which you should save to throw into homemade stocks. If you seem to have a lot of tomato pulp left over, pull or tear or chop it in rough pieces and pile that on the toasts. Now, eat. The tastes are crisp airy bread, hot raw garlic, delicious fresh sweet tomato, and rich olive oil. A spectacular summer lunch, especially with a little fresh mozzarella cheese on the side.