One of my favorite parts of this whole human experience is that feeling you get when you walk into a place you’ve never been before, but it inexplicably feels like you have been there. For me, this kind of heady, location-based déjà vu is often the most palpable in restaurants.
Thanks to their briny iceberg Caesar salads and vintage Campari posters, I’ve been to strip mall red sauce joints states apart that felt nearly identical. There’s one seafood shack in Charleston, S.C., that is eerily similar to a place that sells fried shrimp in Portland, Maine. Don’t even get me started on the late-night pancake houses dotting Chicago’s neighborhoods.
To be clear, I don’t think of the places that inspire the aforementioned déjà vu to be cliché. Rather, they’re quintessential examples of their respective type of restaurant. Like, if someone was working in set design for a movie, they’d bring photographs of these dining rooms as inspiration for really setting the scene.
What can I say? Sometimes you just want to eat fried shrimp or drink diner coffee in a place that looks exactly like it should be serving fried shrimp or diner coffee.
And sometimes you want to get “pizza bread” from D’Amato’s Bakery because it looks exactly like the type of place you should order pizza bread from. Located on Chicago’s West Grand — next to a sub shop, which is next to a trattoria — D’Amato’s is a family-owned Italian bakery whose coal-burning oven has been running since 1912.
On Sunday mornings, a line of customers curls out onto the front sidewalk, steadily pushing toward the front door. On my most recent trip, there was a man who escorted his elderly mom into the bakery. Her sensible shoes made her gauzy church hat all the more ostentatious.
The pair bickered the entire time they were in the line. When it finally came time for them to order, they huffed in unison. Ultimately, the son said, “We just need a couple dozen — you pick.”
The man waited a beat for his mom to turn away from the counter before catching the cashier’s attention. “Just try to emphasize these, though,” he said, waving his hand over the lemon knots.
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Behind them was a man in a Bulls hoodie helping his daughter sound out all the daily specials, which were scrawled in Sharpie on printer paper and taped above the kitchen window. “Eggplant parm . . . parm . . .” she murmured to herself. “Parmesan,” he whispered with a high-five.
Finally, crowding around the entrance was a trio of women. It was unclear from their outfits — denim, fishnets, snakeskin — whether they were headed to brunch or just headed home. (Honestly, a D’Amato’s pizza bread would be exactly the thing to ward off a hangover if that were the case.)
“Pizza bread” is pretty simple. Think of a round, springy focaccia topped with traditional pizza ingredients, ranging from oil-bathed artichoke hearts to briny black olives. The best, however, is undoubtedly the original pizza bread — simply topped with good tomatoes and just the right amount of seasoning.
The best is undoubtedly the original pizza bread — simply topped with good tomatoes and just the right amount of seasoning.
The loaf’s edges are slightly crisped, while the interior is beautifully spongy with the occasional acidic pop of a baked ruby red tomato slice. There’s no cheese or cutting-edge toppings, but it feels quintessentially of D’Amato’s much in the way the place itself feels like a prototypical Italian-American bakery.
Occasionally, when I feel like a lazier Sunday than getting up early to groggily travel to D’Amato’s via bike or train would permit, I’ll make a round loaf of my own using my go-to focaccia recipe (Claire Saffitz’s soft and crispy focaccia from “Dessert Person” for the win) and a few simple additions. It’s not the exact same, but it inspires some déjà vu just the same.
Inspired by “Dessert Person” and D’Amato’s Bakery
45-65 minutes, plus rise and proofing time
- 1 batch focaccia dough
- 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup canned whole tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons dried, crushed basil
- 2 teaspoons dried, crushed fennel seed
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon dried, crushed rosemary
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Salt to taste
Prepare focaccia according to recipe instructions as normal until it’s time to bake the loaf (or loaves) in either a 18×13-inch sheet pan or two 6-inch cake pans.
Drain the canned whole tomatoes and hand-tear them into bite-sized pieces over a bowl. Salt to taste and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the herbs and spices, olive oil and salt to taste.
Place the torn tomatoes into some of the “dimples” of the focaccia. Using a small pastry brush, brush the top of the focaccia with the herbed olive oil.
Bake according to recipe instructions and enjoy.
Focaccia — which is typically made using just flour, yeast, olive oil, salt and water — is already egg- and dairy-free. The toppings called for in this recipe are as well, which means this is a great dish to share with your vegan friends.
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