Go Biga downtown, mop the plate

“He keeps that batch of ‘live’ dough from one day to the next. It’s the life of the bread.”

Ancient yeast makes for ancient crust — not your flabby Wonder Bread
  • Ancient yeast makes for ancient crust — not your flabby Wonder Bread

I look at my chunk of bread. Just think, Napoleon ate this. Could have. Really. This bread. That’s how long it’s been going. Back in 1815, Battle of Waterloo and all that, this exact same family of living yeast was powering the breads that the likes of Mr. N. Bonaparte depended on. It has never been allowed to die.

Two centuries later, seems this chef Tae Dickey carried some across the oceans from Naples to San Diego. What was it? Flour, water, and this unique li’l family of living yeasts that has been growing continuously for 200 years. Bakers have left some alive and unbaked, used to fuel the dough that’ll become the next day’s batch of bread — what they call a biga in Italy.

Incredible. Like passing the Olympic torch every night for 200 years. Never letting it go out.

Window sign. Biga means “starter dough.” Here it’s 200 years old.

Window sign. Biga means “starter dough.” Here it’s 200 years old.

Which is why today, Sunday morning, I can sit here at Sixth and Broadway downtown and chow into this seriously delicious, nutty, smoky, Italian-yeasted bread from Napoleon’s day.

Biga Cucinato a Legno

950 Sixth Avenue, Suite C, Downtown San Diego

Actually, this Sunday morning started off with a disappointment. I’d come downtown to check out the breakfast pizza that I’d heard they had going weekends here at Biga. It came with eggs, bacon — a whole breakfast on top of this historical bread. I’d gotten off the bus at Sixth and Broadway and crossed over to the 1929 Samuel Fox building. The past year, this street-level corner space changed into this really cool, seriously chef-oriented pizzeria and eco-focused eatery and coffee place. And bakery and bar.

Inside, it’s like I imagine a 1940s back-East Italian eatery-café. Tile, white columns, lots of exposed factory-like cables and switches, big, way-high ceilings, long-dangle lamps. You can see serious pizza- and bread-baking goes on behind the counter on the right. Stacks of logs sit under the Broadway window, for the bread and pizza ovens. And a big square island bar fills the middle. The maroon back wall has a big message painted on it that promises the nosh’ll be “fresh…from the land and sea,” and “served with delight.”

Corey, the gal who’s come to the table, is trying hard to serve with delight. “I’m sorry,” she says, “they’ve stopped doing those breakfast pizzas. We have the Haystack instead.”

Dang. No breakfast pizza? But instead of throwing a tantrum, I go head-down into the brunch menu. And there are some pretty cool things when you look. You can do a make-your-own omelet for seven bucks and up, depending on how much you stuff into it. Then they have eggs and “house-cured bacon” for $9. Two eggs plus “house-made pasture raised bacon.” Making your own bacon: shows they’re serious about doing their own artisan thing.

Most expensive is the crab Benedict, with English muffin, sliced avo, tomato, arugula and hollandaise, $13. Cheapest: yogurt and berries for $4.50. Add “house-made” honey-roasted granola plus walnuts and almonds, and it’s $6. Or, just get a side of focaccia bread ($3) and maybe four slices of that bacon ($3.50). I mean, that’d tame the beast.

I’m almost tempted by the brunch pizzas (they go from $9 for the Margherita on up). But the one I want is the “Truffle Decadence,” and it comes with cheese, cream, truffle cheese, and...24-karat gold leaf? You eat it. Costs $18.

Haystack breakfast: naughty, but pretty healthy, too

Haystack breakfast: naughty, but pretty healthy, too

Problem is I’m more interested in the Haystack. Corey says it’s mushroom gravy with hash browns on top, a layer of arugula, sautéed ’shrooms, chunks of that house-cured bacon, two over-easy eggs (from cage-free hens), and chives, lots of chives.

“It’s our special today, $11,” Corey says.

Well, not the cheapest, but it sounds worth it. I order that and a coffee, an Americano, because they have no drip coffee that I can see. Costs $2.97. Espresso’s $2.70, and a pour-over (“our best”) goes for $4.05.

This Americano’s the one other disappointment. Watery. Corey does go add some more oompf to it.

But the Haystack is totally excellent. Yes, a little greasy at the bottom, but the arugula, that beautiful bacon, and the sautéed mushrooms, the mix of naughty and nice: It’s definitely worth $11.

The biga bread thing? I wouldn’t have discovered even what biga meant except I felt the need for a couple of slices of bread to go with the Haystack. Mop up all that oil and potatoes. I notice the menu says “house-made English muffins prepared with our 200-year-old biga from Naples.”

“The muffins, too?” I ask.

“Certainly,” says Andrea, one of the staff. “Tae’s passionate about this.”

Turns out Tae Dickey’s the owner-chef here, and a CIA graduate. (That’s Culinary Institute of America, right?) And he studied in northern Italy. “He got that 200-year-old yeast from a small pizzeria near Naples,” Andrea says. “He keeps that batch of ‘live’ dough from one day to the next. It’s the life of the bread. It’s the reason for the crusts these loaves have. And the wood-fired oven gives it a smoky flavor, too. We’re the only bakers in San Diego who bake bread in a wood-burning oven.”

And, sure ’nuff — man! I get their bacon-and-date bread. Couple of thick slices. Toasted. Sensational. Savory, nutty, smoky, with slashes of sweet from the dates. What a way to mop your plate. And the crust? Dark, almost crackling. You think back to flabby Wonder Bread. Ayee! After this, you can never go back.

Gotta take some of this to Carla. Even though a whole loaf costs $8.50. (Baguette version’s $3.50). Now if Napoleon had done the same for Josephine instead of heading off to Waterloo, just think how much better things would have turned out (heh-heh).

Biga Cucinato a Legno

950 Sixth Avenue, Suite C, Downtown San Diego

Type of Food: Bakery/café

Breakfast Prices: Yogurt and berries, $4.50; granola, yogurt, berries, $6; make-your-own omelet, $7 and up; eggs and bacon, $9; crab Benedict, $13. Italian Benedict with prosciutto, pesto, $11; side of focaccia bread, $3; Margherita pizza, $9; burrata pizza, (burrata cheese, prosciutto), $16; Truffle Decadence (cream, truffle cheese, 24-karat gold leaf), $18; the Haystack (hash browns, gravy, bacon, eggs, arugula), $11; n.b.: separate menus for lunch, dinner

Nearest Bus Stop: All downtown, Broadway at Sixth

Nearest Trolley Stops: Blue Line, Orange Line, Fifth Avenue and C Street

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