Okay, bread gurus ... I need your help.
When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents lived half a block down from an Italian bakery that made the best bread and rolls in the New World. That’s all they made ... bread and rolls, in the most unlikely setting imaginable. No fancy glass cases, no pretty displays. You walked across a concrete floor into what looked like a warehouse, up to an industrial-type counter and bought either a loaf of Italian bread or rolls by the dozen ... watching the men load and unload the huge brick ovens while screaming at each other in Italian.
On Sundays, the minute Nonna dropped the pasta into the boiling water, Nonno would walk out the back door, down the alley, and be back with a white bakery bag filled with hot, fresh-from-the-oven rolls just as the pasta was being drained. If there was a definition of heaven in my little world back then, it was breaking open one of those rolls, slathering half of it with dairy butter, then dredging the other half through the spaghetti sauce left on my plate.
For years, I have dreamed of those rolls and have never found another bakery that made bread quite like them, even in other parts of the northeast. And I have never found a recipe that even comes close to approximating them. Realistically, I know I don’t have a brick oven and would never be able to duplicate them exactly ... but if I could at least get somewhere in the ballpark, I would be a very happy woman. And so I thought, given the bread geniuses we have here, that maybe I could describe the rolls and it would ring a bell with someone, at least enough to suggest a working recipe as a starting point.
These rolls had a thin crust that managed to be both crisp and toothsome at the same time ... and I truly mean ‘thin’, just enough to form a flaky covering of sorts over the roll. And, while it was crisp, it wasn’t the least bit hard or crumbly ... you even had to tug a bit to bite off a piece. The insides of the rolls were like fluffy, hot cotton which almost melted in your mouth even without butter. They did not keep well at all and staled quickly ... any (unlikely) leftovers had to be toasted with butter and jam or cheese for breakfast the next morning to be palatable.
I have tried a good many recipes for “Italian rolls” over the years, both from friends and from the Internet. All of them have either had a crust that was too hard or too thick, didn’t have the thin, flaky quality I remember, or the inside didn’t have that fluffy, almost airy “hot cotton” quality of these rolls. I’m beginning to think I’ll have to drive 1,100 miles if I ever want to taste them again.
Do these ring a bell with anyone?