Chicago ain't Paris. Sometimes it isn't even the Wonder Bread factory. Chicago's dearth of artisan bread is a serious issue for a city that many are regarding as one of the top food cities in the world. There are no more than a handful of inspired bread baking operations in Chicago right now: Red Hen, Fox and Obel, and La Farine, for example.
One of the places I hadn't really thought of in that group was Labriola. Located in Chicago's southwestern suburb of Alsip, Labriola was a major player, a multi-million dollar company who'd started to take away the business of other local mediocre commercial bread bakers. With hundreds of accounts, I was totally skeptical they'd have any kind of finesse. Then again, one only look at Barry Bonds and A-Rod to know that largeness does not mean lack of quality—though, as we now know, a few years ago the bodies of those hulking players were also laced with insidious substances. However, Labriola, which eschews life extending preservatives and fillers, serves breads that are as clean as a surgical operating suite.
My change of heart toward Labriola came last week when while working on a story over at Xoco, Rick Bayless' new sandwich spot, when sous chef Shaw Lash brought over a bolillo, or rustic Mexican-style loaf the restaurant was using for its wood-fired sandwiches. She showed me how it was springy and super soft inside, and how it was slightly underbaked so that it would bake to perfect doneness when they put it in the fiery oven. She told me about the 12-hour double proofing and the hand forming of the loaves. I listened intently, impressed by the hardcore nature of the process, and stuffed the thing in my bag and headed home.
I put the bolillo next to me as I worked that afternoon. Eventually the yeasty perfume got me and I broke off a piece to gnaw on—then another, and another. In five minutes, I'd taken down the whole 8-inch loaf like Joey Chestnut sucking down a Nathan's Famous hot dog. Though there was no fat in the roll, it had an inherent butteriness and a sharp sour tang. And though it was not technically a baguette, especially due to the super airy soft crumb inside, it was, in some ways, the best baguette I'd ever had.
A couple days later, I headed on down to the new Labriola Bakery Café in Oak Brook to sample some more wares, including the deep caramelized and pillowy soft pretzel roll-wrapped burger that my buddy Chicago Tribune Cheeseburger Chief Kevin Pang described as better than local vaunted patty at Kuma's Corner. Pang was right: it was a juicier burger and the fresh bread made all the difference. Fellow Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans also reviewed Labriola and called out the bun as the star of the burger. I picked up a few other loaves, of which my favorite was a sunflower seed encrusted number. The sunflower seeds adding both texture and a rich, almost peanut butter-like finish.
Labriolia was the real deal. I called up owner Rich Labriolia, a man who's baked more miles of bread than Lance Armstrong has cycled. He's been paying attention to a lot of French baking processes, and he insists that baking on a large scale can still yield incredible quality. He's devoted himself to finding the balance that ensures that quality. If that seems counterintuitive, all I can say is, the proof is in the crumb.
Labriola Bakery Café
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