Syracuse, N.Y. — Around here, a conversation about who makes the best Italian bread is the type of debate that can turn into an all-out carbo clash.
We all have our favorite, and there’s no changing our minds. Usually it’s what we grew up with, the bakery our parents dragged us to when we were kids.
“At the end of the day, people have their customs,” said Mary Kiernan, a certified professional chef from the Culinary Institute of American who teaches at Syracuse University’s Falk School. “I used to love going to Columbus Bakery just to watch them make the bread. And there was always a line. That doesn’t make it the best bread. That just makes it one person’s favorite.”
But what about all of those Central New York transplants? What about the future Micron employees who are about to boost our population by thousands? They won’t know where to get that perfect loaf for their family dinner without a little help. Sure, it’s just flour, yeast, water and salt, but each loaf is unique.
Since we’re just entering the holiday season, we thought the time is right to test 12 local Italian breads from local bakeries and supermarkets. Six journalists from syracuse.com — Chris Baker, Annie Hayes, Rylee Kirk, Charlie Miller, Darian Stevenson and Jules Struck — met at Swallow’s Restaurant on South Avenue to, well, break bread. Each loaf was numbered, and we didn’t know which was which when we sampled a slice.
We each took at least one bite of the plain bread. We then had the option of adding butter or dipping it into olive oil with Italian spices, marinara sauce from It’s a Utica Thing or Pastabilities’ hot tomato oil.
There wasn’t a bad loaf in the very large bread basket. (Or was it a laundry basket?) That said, each tasted and looked very different. Chef Kiernan said that can be caused by the amount of salt in each loaf, the kind of oven in the kitchen, the type of flour used or even the origin of the water.
“Water on the West Side of Syracuse might taste very different from the water in North Syracuse,” she said. “It also depends on when the bread came out of the oven.”
We scored each loaf on its crust, air pockets, texture, flavor and finish (appearance). Here is how we ranked them, from the lowest to highest score:
Address: 502 E. Division St., Syracuse
Size: 16-by-5½-by-4 inches
From the judges: We must’ve gotten a bad loaf. It was so dense that it was hard to rip, almost as if it were overcooked. Not much flavor after finally cutting each piece slice.
10: Price Chopper
Address: 4713 Onondaga Blvd., Syracuse. Multiple locations throughout Central New York
Price: $1.99 (with a shopper’s card)
Size: 16-by-5½-by-4 inches
From the judges: It has a nice shiny outside. It seems a little sticky, almost like it was given an egg wash at the end. (That’s not a bad thing.) It’s easy to tear. The interior is fluffy, almost bouncy. In the end, though, it lacks flavor.
9: Casa del Pane
Address: 3247 Milton Ave., Syracuse
Size: 17-by-5-by-3 inches
From the judges: This family-owned bakery makes everything from scratch. It’s a very endearing shop. The bread itself served as a perfect vehicle for everything we had on the testing table, especially the spiced-up olive oil. It’s also good at mopping up gravy because it has fewer air pockets than most.
8: Lyncourt Bakery
Address: 2205 Teall Ave., Syracuse
Price: $2.75 (cash only)
Size: 15-by-5-by-3½ inches
From the judges: The crust is firm, but it’s not too hard. The inside is dense and chewy, yet it’s still light. The taste is so subtle that we all dipped our slice into one of the condiments to boost the flavor after tasting the bread in its original state.
7: Nino’s Italian Bakery
Address: 1421 Lodi St., Syracuse
Size: 9-by-7-by-4 inches
From the judges: This bakery that’s known for genuine Italian cookies clearly has a following for its bread. They were out of “point” bread by 3 p.m., so we got a Sicilian loaf that was a baked lookalike of Yoda from the “Star Wars” series. (”Red wine you will want to drink with me.”) The bread’s flavor stands fine on its own. And each velvety soft slice folds nicely to soak up that green olive oil.
Address: 4722 Onondaga Blvd., Syracuse. Multiple locations throughout Central New York
Size: 13-by-5-by-3½ inches
From the judges: This is the loaf of bread you’re going to grab when you stop at the store to pick up ingredients for dinner on the way home. It tastes like, well, bread. There’s nothing special about it. The crust is inconsistent, but the middle is decent. It’s perfect for dipping into gravy, marinara sauce or olive oil.
5: Green Hills Farms Supermarket
Address: 5933 S. Salina St., Syracuse
Size: 15-by-5-by-3 inches
From the judges: The bakery at this supermarket is known for some of the best donuts and pastries in Central New York. So it’s not really surprising that it makes good bread. This crust was consistently brittle, in a good way. Because of that, it made the biggest mess of all the loaves when we turned the serrated knife on it. The interior texture was smooth, but it didn’t have much flavor until we loaded it up with spreads or sauces.
4: Columbus Bakery
Address: 502 Pearl St., Syracuse
Size: 14-by-5-by-5½ inches
From the judges: The hard crust provides a sturdy shell to the soft inside. Once you get there, you’re treated to a decent flavored bread that can please most palates without any foreign dips getting in the way. This crust, though, is not child-friendly. It’ll scrape the roof of your mouth if you’re not careful. There’s an easy solution: tear the slice in half and pull out the soft crumb. (No, not crumbs. The crumb is the inside of a bread loaf.) This loaf seems it would be best eaten on the way home, when it’s warm.
3: Tops Friendly Market
Address: 5335 W. Genesee St., Camillus. Multiple locations throughout Central New York
Size: 12-by-6-by-4 inches
From the judges: This bread made us happy. The spongy inside is soft like Wonder Bread, but with flavor. The crust was thick enough to maintain the shape while giving it an added flavor boost. After trying a bite on its own, we noticed how well it absorbed olive oil and the marinara. Our jaws dropped when we found out this was a grocery store bread. Our chef consultants, however, were not surprised at all. They regularly bought bread from the Tops in Cortland before it closed.
2: Geddes Bakery
Address: 421 S. Main St., North Syracuse
Size: 15-by-6-by-4½ inches
From the judges: What an attractive loaf of bread. During its time in the oven, the top split lengthwise to create a footlong winding crevice. Basically, the top of this bread had two crusts, one heavy and one medium heavy. Both protected the gentle inside from becoming stale. It remained soft until we broke into it with our sharp bread knife. Like the past few loaves, this bread needs no culinary accessories. No wonder so many fine restaurants in the area serve this bread.
1: Harrison Bakery
Address: 1306 Genesee St., Syracuse
Size: 12-by-7-by-5 inches
From the judges: This had the softest crumb of all the loaves we sampled, and that was before we defaced it with any sauces or oils. The crust wasn’t too rough, and it clearly had risen more than most. Perhaps that’s why the belly was so bouncy. This 73-year-old family-owned bakery is known for its half-moon cookies, cakes and cream puffs. We didn’t even know they made Italian bread until this week. Just to be sure our tastebuds weren’t taking a nap, we passed samples around the bar at Swallow’s. Even loyal followers of North Side bakeries said this was some of the best bread they’ve ever had. Now THAT’S validation.
* Pasta’s Daily Bread
Address: 308 S. Franklin St., Syracuse
Size: 26-by-4-by-2 inches
From the judges: We’re not including this loaf in our rankings because 1) it’s not a traditional Italian bread, and 2) we all knew what it was just by looking at it, smelling it and by tasting it. This stretch bread is obviously very popular here. Rightfully so. One judge called the loaf “funny looking” but then formally invited it to her Thanksgiving dinner. Another judge, one who actually studied bread in college, said judging this wasn’t fair because it was like a Major League Baseball all-star pinch-hit in a Geddes Little League game. We all agreed that it tasted wonderful on its own, but we all rushed to dip it into the bowl of hot tomato oil made from the same restaurant.
This list surely has left many of you shaking your head. You’re probably asking how we could pick a supermarket loaf over Columbus. How could we possibly rank bread made by Greeks higher than one from a true Italian bakery?
We get it. We’re shaking our heads too. But this was a blind taste-test. Each bite was unique, and we had no idea where it came from.
It doesn’t really matter, though. We’re not here to change your mind. Holidays are about traditions, and many of us have traditions that involve what we eat. And who knows, maybe some new traditions will come from this.
Charlie Miller finds the best in food, drink and fun across Central New York. Contact him at (315) 382-1984, or by email at [email protected]. (AND he pays for what he and his guests eat and drink, just so you know.) You can also find him under @HoosierCuse on Twitter and on Instagram. Sign up for his free weekly Where Syracuse Eats newsletter here.