Secrets of Sarcone's Here's an after-hours peek inside the legendary South Philly bakery Sarcone's from scratch

Posted: April 09, 2003

IN THE WEE hours of the morning, you don't need street signs to tell you you're in South Philly's Bella Vista section.

All you need is your nose.

Just past midnight, the aroma of baking bread envelops the Italian Market like a warm, yeasty fog. The scent gets especially heady on South 9th Street between Fitzwater and Catharine, right around Sarcone's Bakery.

Sarcone's is home to the perfect loaves, the ones we take for granted as Philadelphians, wrapped around cheesesteaks and hoagies. The bakery also makes handmade flatbreads, breadsticks, dinner rolls, twists, pepperoni bread, pizza dough, garlic bread and braided rings.

And the streets surrounding the bakery have smelled this way just about every morning - except Mondays - for 85 years, thanks to Luigi Sarcone, the bakery's founder, and grandfather and great-grandfather to the current father-and-son owners, Louis "Big Lou" Sarcone and Louis Sarcone Jr.

"We've made the same product the same way, all four generations," says Louis Jr. "When I get out of my car in the morning, if I don't smell the bread, I know something's wrong."

An overnight stay at Sarcone's, during the prime hours from midnight to 6 a.m. when bakery bustle is at its height, reveals the biggest secret to the bread: the bakers.

Behind the scenes

Breadmaker Tommy Landofi works best when everyone else is sleeping. He's a third-generation baker who has worked at Sarcone's head mixer for six years.

On a recent night about 11:30, we watched as he got to work, mixing the doughs for 3,000 Italian loaves, plus a few hundred rolls and specialty breads (all of which will sell out by early afternoon).

Dressed in baker's whites, with a red bandanna tied around his head - more Bruce Springsteen than Pillsbury Dough Boy - Landofi showed us how it's done. He typically works the first few hours of his shift alone, his only company the flour-dusted radio cranking out classic rock.

First on the to-do list on this night - "two-bag doughs." That's two 100-pound bags of Pillsbury's XXXX white flour, malt, yeast, salt and water. Just five ingredients go into Sarcone's Italian loaves.

"No preservatives," Landofi says, "We do it the way it's been done for hundreds of years. Nothing's changed. A lot of bigger bakeries will incorporate your preservatives to the ingredients to give it that shelf life. This bread's made for one day. It's made one day, and it's supposed to be eaten that day."

No extra yeast, either, says Sarcone Jr.

"Most bakers double the yeast, which makes the dough rise faster, so they don't have to wait the six hours it takes us to make our bread. Everybody's got to have bread, so they try to produce it as fast as they can."

Landofi measures out 5 pounds of salt, 1 1/2 pounds barley malt, and three 1-pound bricks of yeast into brown paper bags lined up on a table.

These ingredients make up 2 percent of each dough, Landofi explains. The rest is flour and water. All together, a two-bag dough weigh 320 pounds.

That's one big biscuit.

Without even a grunt, Landofi hauls the heavy flour bags into a cast-iron mixer. This giant machine is no run-of-the-mill KitchenAid. More like a KitchenAid that's been super-sized, turned on its side and roughed up.

Next, he dumps in one of the brown bags and walks over to a dial on the wall that measures out the water, which flows directly into the mixer from pipes overhead. Water accounts for 55 percent of the dough, so he sets the gauge for a little less than 104 pounds (52 quarts) and adds one big scoop of ice.

Landofi lets the dough combine on low for three to five minutes and then turns it up to high for about eight to 10 more.

"The high speed is what develops the dough. It gets the yeast to activate with the other ingredients," he says.

The machine churns and wheezes.

When the mixer's thermometer reads 82 degrees, Landofi turns a crank, reaches in, pinches off a piece of dough and puts it in his mouth.

"I have a tendency to taste the dough," he says. "I don't swallow - it's not good for your insides. I always take a little piece and chew on it to let me know if I forgot any ingredients."

This time, he's gotten it just right.

It's in the water

Baking, Landofi explains, is tricky. There's the ingredients, the softness of the water and the weather to consider. Here in Philly, the tap water is perfect for Italian bread. The weather, however, keeps local bread dudes on their toes.

"A mixer always knows what the weather's gonna be. In cold weather, I want to make the doughs a little softer, so I add more water. In the summer, the humidity in the air can make the dough really soft and flat, so I mix in less water and use more ice to make up the difference," Landofi says.

"In warmer weather, it's more salt, less yeast. In colder weather, more yeast, less salt," adds Sarcone Jr.

"It takes experience to figure it out, to mix the way it should be mixed," Sarcone says. "A friend of mine who worked here tried to make the bread once. He said it was a pain in the ass. He goes, 'Never again - no way.' You're better off just buying a couple of loaves of bread, save yourself the aggravation."

Landofi opens the mixer, picks up a knife, cuts the mega-gob free from the mixer blade, dumps it into a trough with wheels and covers it with a brown tarp. The dough stays here for one hour and 45 minutes.

In the meantime, Landofi gets to work making an equally large batch of roll dough. The recipe for smaller loaves - steak rolls, dinner rolls, twists and breadsticks - calls for margarine. Sarcone's uses kosher margarine.

"Margarine helps keep the inside of the dough moist for breads with smaller crusts," says Sarcone Jr. "It helps with the shelf life, so that your dinner rolls still taste fresh at dinnertime."

A seedy fate

While the rest of the world still has hours left to sleep, it's 2 a.m. and Landofi and his crew are busily punching the air out of the dough pillow.

They'll let it rise for 15 more minutes, punch it again, and lug it like a big, dead body onto a table.

Then the fun begins.

Under the watchful eye of foreman Bennie Rodriguez, Sarcone's half-dozen or so bakers slash, load, lug, slap, prod and arrange each hefty dough in a rigorous process that readies it for the brick ovens.

First, it gets heaved into a giant silver divider - looks like a sausage-makerĀ- that separates the dough into 1-pound wads that then get dusted in cornmeal before they sit on trays inside wheeled cabinets for one hour and 15 minutes. Next, the doughs enter one by one into a molding machine, where rollers form them into skinny loaf shapes.

Then it's onto a vat of sesame seeds, back to the cabinets, and into the steam box - a humidifying closet where the dough develops - for 45 minutes more. Before the ovens, they go under the knife - actually razor blades - which score the bread tops. Finally a 16-foot peel slides the unbaked breads deep into roaring brick ovens, where the bread bakes at 375 to 400 degrees.

It's this last job that is entrusted to Joe Burzak. Burzak has manned Sarcone's ovens since 1979. Like Landofi, he lets the weather tell him how to do his job. He bakes the bread a little longer in the summer, less in the winter. Maybe 15 minutes, maybe 20.

A timer? Not necessary here.

Says Burzak, "After a while, you open the oven door, and you just know." *

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