The best bread begins in South Philly
There was a time when South Philly smelled like bread and the streets were paved with sesame seeds. For Italian immigrants and the generations of Americans they produced, the corner bakery was an anchor, clubhouse, water cooler, confessional — a space where neighborhood bonds were forged over the most elemental and honest of foods.
To say that South Philly has changed in the century that followed that first wave of immigration would be a giant understatement. Many of the bakeries have closed. But the strongest have endured — and new ones have risen like dough on a sunny windowsill.
A sandwich is only as good as its bread. Meet the rolls of downtown’s upper crust.
758 S. Ninth St .
“First of all,” Lou Sarcone Jr. wrote me, “Sarcone’s is the bakery that started the seeded bread.” It takes the fourth-generation baker six hours and a brick oven to produce a batch of South Philly’s most iconic and identifiable loaves: structures of soft crumb wrapped like broken arms in casts of thin crusts that shatter into thousands of seeded shards.
1716 Jackson St.
Lanci men have manned the coal-fired oven on the corner of Jackson and Colorado since 1921. Rafeal, the great-grandfather of current patriarch, Larry Lanci, built the brick beast shortly after arriving in America — and built a loyal following by eschewing chemicals and additives at a time when “stretching the dough” had more than one meaning. Larry closed the place in 2007, when his father became ill, and reopened it in 2012. Meanwhile the airy Italian loaf hasn’t changed.
1526 W. Ritner St.
The repartee between the backroom bakers and counter ladies can border on abusive — dunno who’s worse — but the dense, plainspoken loaves at this two-by-four bakery have fed St. Monica’s families (mine included) since 1953. Franchises now exist in Delco and Jersey, but the original (incidentally, it’s located across the street from the original Primo Hoagies) is the only location, as far as I’m concerned.
1155 E. Passyunk Ave.
The sheets of saucy tomato pie get top billing at 104-year-old Iannelli’s Bakery on East Passyunk near Ellsworth, but Vince Iannelli, the original owners’ grandson, does a respectable bread trade, too. He mixes dough (“simple ingredients — flour, water, yeast and salt”) on a 60-quart Hobart, rests, packs, proofs, shapes and proofs it again before a trip to the brick oven. Enveloped in thin, crackly, sometimes-sesame-speckled shells, the loaves that emerge have a chewy, pliable quality — not unlike a puffy pizza crust.
2655 S. Iseminger St.
A Northern Liberties transplant, Carangi is a relative newcomer to the South Philly bread scene. They opened in 1998 on Oregon Avenue, pouring La Colombe in a neighborhood that probably considered that a country in South America. Unlike most downtown bakeries, this one does a variety of breads, including this list’s whole-wheat Lone Ranger, a baguette with a nutty flavor and airy crumb flecked with tawny bran.
6) Las Rosas
1712 S. Eighth St.
If you can resist David Meneses’ Mexican pans dulces — poufy conchas, chocolate-dipped donuts so big a rapper could outfit them with rims — his Italian-style loaf is a surprise find. It’s as long as a baseball bat, thoroughly crusted in sesame seeds and has the pillow-like softness common in south-of-the-border baked goods. The dough possesses a barely perceptible sweetness, almost fruity — possibly from camping out near its spiced and sugared relatives.
1218 Mifflin St.
A Cambodian-born, French-trained baker, Andre Chin’s hard-crusted, pebble-bottomed French baguette stands apart from the boot-rooted bakeries and breads of South Philly — but it’s as good for building hoagies or banh mi as it is for slathering with triple-crème. No wonder Passyunk acolytes became upset when Chin and his partner and wife, Amanda Eap, closed their shop at 12th and Morris last year — happily resurfacing a few blocks away.
1400 S. 13th St.
What the elbow-tipped loaf from Faragalli’s, a one-room bakery, lacks in length, it makes up for in weight. You could club a bear with this thick-crusted sans-sesame bread — my dense, chewy favorite since I waited tables in college at Cucina Pazzo, which sourced its bread here. We used to cut a loaf down at the beginning of service, storing the slices in a warming drawer. Half went into the drawer, the other half into my stomach.