A Fresh Look: The staff of life, Pittsburgh style

Soaring fuel costs. Rising unemployment. Climbing food prices.

Most people need dough.

I have a column to write.

I knead dough.

Here I am, in the open kitchen of the Enrico Biscotti Co. in the Strip, learning the fine art of bread-making from Larry Lagattuta, the owner of the bakery and cafe. He teaches the class every Sunday; for the $50 fee, participants feast on enough homemade fare to feed a small nation -- all of it homemade, all of it Italian. On Father's Day, the menu featured assorted pastries (scones, brownies, croissants), a mushroom tart, buffalo mozzarella with roasted red peppers, mussels steamed with garlic and white wine (accompanied by -- what else? -- crusty bread, perfect for sopping up the broth), spaghetti and meatballs, and a mixed field green salad, all washed down with a few bottles of white and red wine.

For Larry, the entire world revolves around the wonder of bread. It is as important to him as water to the thirsty, medicine to the sick, publicity to the Lohans. During the pre-baking brunch, while the 10 of us are sitting around the tables, stuffing and swallowing, chewing and crunching, Larry waxes poetically about yeast and sugar and salt and flour. It's clear that no one worships the God of Gluten as fervently as he does: "When you're making bread, you're dough is your universe."

Larry romanticizes the entire bread-making process, insisting that yeast cells exist only to "have sex, eat sugar and worship you." It's part silly stand-up, part solid salesmanship. Things gets a bit dicey when he begins chatting about the history of bread; he tends to relish and linger over certain graphic descriptions that may or may not be historically accurate but that, well, are a bit tough to swallow. Biting into a juicy meatball while images of the poo-filled waters of the Nile and rats plaguing New York City and giant eagles ripping out eyeballs is, shall I say, a bit unsavory?.

When Larry harks back to the days of Greek mythology, Demeter, goddess of harvest, enters the picture. From then on, loafs of bread are referred to as "Demeter's breasts;" yet no one at the table bats an eyelash ... it all goes down as smoothly as the 1995 Carmen Merlot. If he weren't so sincere -- and didn't have a well-known business to back him -- I'd think Larry was one slice short of a whole loaf.

The patter continues while we move into the open kitchen. Here is where Larry dispels myths -- a "well floured" board means a pinch of flour, not an entire bag; the kneading process should be light and gentle ... your hand must never leave the board.

Larry demonstrates the perfect kneading motion; he calls it the "Princess Wave" -- think limber, but not limp, hand/wrist action.

We put the Princess into play. We coat the rising mounds with whisked egg. We use a peel to slide the loaves -- sorry, I just can't bust out of my non-sexist skin and call them "Demeter's breasts" -- into the wood-burning brick oven. And we are told never, ever, ever open the oven door, "no matter how great the room smells."

More wine. More tales. More myths dispelled. More lessons, including one in baguette making. The secret here? "Pinch the dough as if it were a baby's butt." Someone mentions store-bought bread: It's "plastic bread in plastic bags," Larry reminds us, and should never, ever end up on your table or, worse, in your stomach. Someone mentions The Food Network -- "Food Porno" is how Larry calls it. None of the chefs working the small screen today are any good, he insists; they are "knuckleheaded idiots." (No one reminds Larry that Enrico's was once featured on The Food Network.)

When the time is right -- and Larry seems to have some inner clock that tells him exactly when that is -- oven doors are opened and golden-brown baguettes and mounds emerge. Some are small, some are large, some look like murder weapons. All look, in Larry's words, "perfect;" and all will be "wonderful to eat."

We leave with our loaves and baguettes in brown paper shopping bags. I make my way down the Penn Avenue with much to digest. Call this a case of having my bread and eating it, too.

To commemorate Pittsburgh's 250th birthday this year, the Post-Gazette has asked newcomer and longtime writer/editor Alan W. Petrucelli to share his insights with us weekly. He lives in Churchill and can be reached at entrpt@aol.com .


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