Food & Drink

Charlotte’s Joe Lovallo is at home with baking bread

He’s an average Joe who likes to bake. But Joe Lovallo’s bread is anything but average.

Working out of his home near Matthews, Lovallo makes dough every night and bakes every morning before work – pointed baguettes with perfect razor slashes, wider Italian-style breads, pizzas with crackly, bubbled crusts.

At the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh in October, he took home six ribbons. At the bread competition at the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market in April, he won first, second and People’s Choice for his baguette and Italian-inspired Pane dei Camaldoli.

Two months later, Matthews judge Peter Reinhart, a national expert on professional baking, could still describe Lovallo’s bread:

“The nice shine in the crust from steam, the structure of the holes. And flavor-wise, it was a creamy, moist character and a depth of flavor from fermentation.

“It was at a level of professionalism that you would expect from a professional baker.”

How did a guy who cuts hair and owns a couple of hair salons end up baking bread that could rival a professional?

“I wanted to make the best bread possible,” he says. “I’m shooting for best bread in the country.”

Bread, plain and simple

Bread fans are going to gnash their teeth at this: No, you can’t buy Lovallo’s bread anywhere. He eats a baguette a day himself, but he gives most of it away, to his neighbors and his customers at X-S Hair Salons at 11508 Providence Road and 2921 Providence Road.

When kids come to his house on Halloween, he says some of them ask for bread instead of candy. When there’s a snowstorm coming, friends don’t rush out for bread, they call The Bread Guy.

“I like to see people happy,” he says. “That’s the hair industry – you make women happy.”

Lovallo’s bread fascination started in his hometown, Port Chester, N.Y., a blue-collar place near Greenwich, Conn. His father was in food service, working factory lunchrooms. Lovallo grew up helping out, rolling meatballs and cutting meat for sandwiches. He had Italian-American friends who had family bakeries, and he’d try to learn from them.

“I just liked bread – the smell, the taste. But they could never help me. They were baking commercial.”

Lovallo was a tinkerer as a kid, fixing people’s broken windows or building bikes from parts at the junkyard. He likes figuring out how things work.

He grew up, got married and had five kids, doing a lot of jobs along the way. Hairstyling, real estate, a little modeling. Now 55 and fit from weightlifting, he looks a bit like George Clooney. But in his younger days, he says, “they usually said Richard Gere.”

In 2001, just before his first marriage ended, he and his wife came to Charlotte because it was halfway between New York and Florida. He liked it here, but he wasn’t crazy about the bread.

“In one word, spongy,” he says. “A Kaiser roll was in a plastic bag.”

A baker’s log

His first wife didn’t like his baking. It was messy and got flour everywhere. But he remarried, to his dentist, Dr. Shannon Moran – “she did my teeth, I did her hair” – and now he does most of the cooking. Five years ago, he decided to get serious about bread.

He got a book, Nancy Silverton’s “Breads From the La Brea Bakery.” Something in it struck him:

“She said, ‘write down everything.’ I was making the same mistakes, over and over.” So he started a log, and he started weighing ingredients instead of measuring. He made a starter. And his bread got better.

“One of my biggest mistakes was changing too early. ‘Looks dry, add more water. Now it looks wet, add more flour.’” He learned to give dough time to develop.

He upgraded his kitchen equipment, putting in a KitchenAid double oven with steam injection, replacing his old method of tossing hot ceramic briquettes from his grill in a cast-iron skillet of water in the oven. (They cost about $5,000; his was a Christmas gift from his wife). He started using a slab of granite in the oven as a baking stone.

Moran loves to travel, so Lovallo got to tour bakeries in Europe. In Amalfi, Italy, last year, he went to a bakery from midnight to 5:30 a.m. to watch. He learned techniques like mixing the flour and water and letting them stand up to 8 hours, to let the flour absorb the water. He got 300-year-old starters from friends in Italy.

At the State Fair two years ago, he was told another baker always won Best of Show. But last fall, Lovallo turned the tables, winning first-place ribbons in four categories and taking home Best of Show.

At the Matthews market competition, Reinhart was so impressed, he invited Lovallo into the kitchen at the Asheville Bread Festival, showing him sprouted-wheat bread.

“There’s a lot I don’t know,” Lovallo says. He’d like to know more about croissants, for example, although he doesn’t eat a lot of sweets.

The natural question: Will he open his own bakery? No time soon, he says. He and Moran like to travel, and a bakery would tie them down. And he still has five kids, who range in age from 12 to 26.

Running a bakery is a young man’s game. But someday, when he retires, he’s told one of his sons he’d help him open a bakery, maybe a little shop with sandwiches and pizza.

His original inspiration was Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery became the dough that’s baked and sold at local supermarkets. But now?

“I can’t eat La Brea today,” he admits. “Mine is better.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236

Lessons from the Bread Guy

Joe Lovallo’s tips for home bread bakers:

▪ Get a log book and take notes every time you bake.

▪ Get a good starter. You can find them online at baking supply sites like King Arthur, get one from a friend or start one yourself by mixing equal amounts of flour and water, letting it stand until it’s bubbly and adding more flour and water.

▪ Get a digital scale and weigh ingredients, particularly flour.

▪ Get a beginner’s bread book. He likes “Breads from the La Brea Bakery,” by Nancy Silverton, and “Tartine Bread,” by Chad Robertson.

▪ Get steam in your oven, even if it’s just a pan of water.

▪ Get a baking stone. He uses a slab of polished granite, because it holds in the heat longer.

Same-Day Baguette

From Joe Lovallo. You’ll need a digital scale and a sourdough starter. We’ve given estimated volume measurements to use as a guide, but amounts will vary.

400 grams of sourdough starter

500 grams of water (about 16 ounces)

800 grams of high-gluten bread flour (about 5 1/4 cups; Lovallo uses King Arthur Special)

10 grams instant yeast (about 1 teaspoon)

22 grams salt (about 4 teaspoons)

Mix all the ingredients until smooth. Let it rest for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Halfway through, stretch and fold the dough, then cover and let it finish rising.

Cut the dough into five pieces. Shape each pieces into a round shape (a boule), turning and tucking in the edges underneath, and let it rest 15 minutes. Then roll it into longer baguette shapes. Let it rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the room temperature. Slash several times across the top with a razor.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees with a baking stone in place and a cast-iron skillet on the bottom shelf. Slide the baguettes onto the stone using a wooden paddle. Add steam by placing water in the heated skillet. Reduce temperature to 450 degrees and bake 10 minutes. Turn the baguettes and continue baking 4 to 7 minutes, until brown.

Yield: 5 baguettes.

Pane dei Camaldoli

Lovallo calls this “Bread From Campania.” He doesn’t use steam, but he opens the door at the end to mimic a wood-fired oven cooling down.

800 grams water, divided (about 3 1/2 cups)

1,150 grams flour, divided (about 7 1/2 cups)

500 grams sourdough starter (about 2 cups)

6 grams dry yeast (about 1/4 ounce)

650 grams bread flour (about 4 cups)

28 grams salt (about 1 ounce)

Combine 600 grams of water and 500 grams of flour. Let stand 1 hour.

Add the starter, 200 grams of water, dry yeast, 650 grams of flour and salt. Mix about 10 minutes. Remove from the mixer and let rest 1 1/2 hours.

Shape into oval loaves very gently, without pressing out the gases. Let stand 45 minutes, then refrigerate for 8 hours.

Bake at 475 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 435 degrees and bake 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 400 degrees and bake 10 minutes longer if you want the crust darker. Turn off the oven, open the door and let the bread stand for 15 minutes.