Caputo's Bake Shop: 329 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231 (map); 718-875-6871
A peppery porkiness suffused the air at Serious Eats World Headquarters last week. The aroma curled around the nostrils of the worker bees, drawing them from their seats toward a big table covered with plates. "Oh my God, I love that smell!" said one. Ignoring that we'd just had lunch, we prepared to sample ten of the loaves variously called lard or prosciutto bread from around the city.
The roots of nearly all these breads come from the Southern Italian baking tradition. The first strain is the practice of cooking strictly from hunger: of using, and re-using, absolutely everything. If you were lucky enough to have pork with your meal, you would save the leftover fat and pork scraps, and mix them into your next bread dough, producing lard bread.
The second strain is the Italian festival cooking tradition, when you made up for months of hunger by packing big cubes of salumi and cheese into breads that left you feeling, for once, fat and happy. When Southern Italians arrived in the United States, they found a land of plenty where they could afford meat almost regularly. Italian bakeries in neighborhoods like Little Italy, Carroll Gardens, and along Arthur Avenue made these cholesterol-packed breads part of their daily menu, even adding prosciutto, a Northern Italian delicacy, to their recipes.
Of ten loaves we sampled, eight came from traditional Italian bakeries around the city. The other two were the Eataly prosciutto bread—more like a crusty Italian loaf into which some prosciutto chunks had been tossed—and the Amy's Bread's black pepper prosciutto twists, which were the only ones made with whole wheat flour.
Amy's Bread, Caputo's Bake Shop, Eataly, Faicco's, G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store, Madonia Bakery, Mazzola Bakery, Napoli Bakery, Parisi Bakery, and Royal Crown Bakery
Evaluating Lard Bread
As described above, there are several styles of lard bread. Some are more lean and bread-like; others have a rich, cakey softness. Some rely on the dry intensity of prosciutto; others employ more moist salami. This makes it difficult to create one single standard for all our lard breads to aspire to, and an overall rating on which to score them. So in our blind tasting, we scored our samples on independent ratings of overall flavor, texture, and aroma.
Our Favorite Lard Bread: Royal Crown
Our tasting panel gravitated to the more traditional Italian loaves. Of these, the Napoli bread was the most like traditional lard bread, with flavor of rendered pork fat and bits of pork ends. But we preferred the flavor party provided by the festive cheese-and-meat breads.
The clear winners along all three scores were the three breads made with the most meat, cheese, and, sometimes, peppery flavor. These came from the Parisi Bakery in Nolita, Caputo's in Carroll Gardens, and, the overall winner, Royal Crown in Bensonhurst.
With its slightly charred crust, rich cheesy flavor, and big chunks of meat, the Royal Crown prosciutto bread ($4) was the standout, receiving the highest marks in flavor, texture, and aroma. One taster went so far as to call it the "Platonic ideal" of the genre. At the end of the tasting, that plate was empty, yet the tasters still lurked around, hoping for more.
NB: These bakeries do not all make lard bread every day. Call before you visit to see if the loaves are in stock, or if they can bake one for you.