Walking up to the screen door of a nondescript catering kitchen on Romney Street, my ears pick up the sounds of a French quartet while my nose detects the tantalizing aroma of warm bread. I close my eyes and imagine a boulangerie in Marseille. I open them and find myself at Pane Di Vita, the new bakery of Richard Plaistowe, a brawny Bostonian with some real baking skills.
Plaistowe, who has worked at Duvall Catering and Peninsula Grill, is the mystery baker who makes hoagie rolls for Bon Banh Mi and Street Hero (they refused to identify him in a recent story, but we tracked him down). If it sounds like a small business, that’s because it most certainly is. Right now, Pane di Vita is a one-man show with Plaistowe baking through the night. In two weeks, Pane Di Vita will be fully operational, and Plaistowe plans to reach out to more local businesses. As he expands, his bread selection will too.
“In the next few weeks I want to start making a French-style sourdough,” says Plaistowe. “I’ve also been practicing a ciabatta to get it just right.” For now, he's using organic rye and wheat flours and tends a starter that he cultivated himself.
This sort of experimentation with technique and ingredients drives Plaistowe’s passion. “The fascinating thing about bread making is that with a different slash to the dough or even a slightly varied method of kneading can result in a totally different bread," he says.
While Wonder Bread fans may frown at the ever-changing qualities of handmade bread, Plaistowe finds beauty in this organic nature of the art. For one, he says he can’t wait to start using some of Anson Mills Rustic Red Flour and branching out beyond French and Italian into other Old World heritage.
He’s fascinated by the history of artisan bread. “This has been something that we have eaten for centuries and every culture has a different take,” says Plaistowe, who comes from a lineage of German, Polish, Italian, and English ancestry.
This attention to the cultural background is evident in his banh mi baguettes. In Robert Moss' recent banh mi roundup, his favorite was Bon Bahn Mi, mainly because of the bread, which Plaistowe makes using a mixture of rice and wheat flours, the traditional Vietnamese recipe.
“Rice flour is a more difficult flour to produce, so oftentimes people make a roll without it,” notes Plaistowe. “But I think it is really what makes the roll.”
As he kneads some dough, he recounts the The Baker’s Wife, a 1938 French film about a heartbroken village baker who refuses to resume baking until his wife returns. This is not the story of Plaistowe, but rather, he says, “The baker in the movie starts baking bread for the entire village when the townspeople help in the return of his wife. He generously gives bread out as a token of appreciation.” For Plaistowe, the movie is an inspiration. His passion for bread making is as a community offering, not just a business.
Down the road, Plaistowe envisions a storefront bakery downtown offering breads and sweets, but that’s still several steps away. Until then and with this mystery baker revealed, head to Bon Banh Mi or Caviar and Bananas and try some Pane di Vita from the new village baker.