Menuology: A Real Basket Case

By Elizabeth Bomze | Boston Magazine |

Sometime during the past 10 years, bread baskets took a turn for the fancier. Baguettes with foil-wrapped pats gave way to carbo-copias like Rialto‘s generous mix of olive-rosemary focaccia, Tuscan rolls, and grissini. Now, with profit margins shrinking and flour prices skyrocketing, you might think that high-octane bread service would be an early recession casualty. Don’t bet on it, says Harvest pastry chef Jed Hackney, whose orange-currant Irish soda bread garners serious fans at the Cambridge eatery. "Things would have to get pretty terrible for us to get rid of the bread. It’s one of the hallmarks of dining here."

Local restaurateurs say there’s a reason you’re more likely to see skimpier rib-eyes than reduced ciabatta options: Free bread gives diners a perception of overall value and ensures they leave satisfied despite entrée shrinkage and rising prices. "Whatever happens in this recession, we still need to provide that service," says Mooo executive chef David Hutton, who serves addictive dinner rolls in little cast-iron pans. "If you don’t serve bread, you’re going to be out of business."

The schmears have dodged downsizing, too. Sportello‘s fresh scali comes with house-made ricotta and fig preserves. And over at Bina Osteria, the new Italian restaurant in Downtown Crossing, executive chef Brian Konefal puts out "pig butter," rendered pork fat flavored with rosemary, thyme, garlic, and fleur de sel. "It’s a lot more labor," he says. "But it’s cheaper than buying butter."