Nathan Anda decided years ago that he wanted the Red Apron in Penn Quarter to focus on tigelles, the flatbread common to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where locals slice open the muffin-like rounds and fill them with a lard-heavy pesto. What Anda didn't realize is that he would need those many months of R&D to develop the perfect tigelle dough.
"It took us two years to master the dough," says Anda, executive chef and partner behind Red Apron, the sandwich-and-butcher-shop chain set to open its D Street NW location on Wednesday, more than a year behind its initial projection.
The problem, he says, is that authentic tigelle (also known as "crescentine") dough requires lard, an ingredient that when combined with yeast was "coming out a little dense," Anda recalls. Last April, though, Anda located a cookbook all about the tigelle (which means "tile" in Italian, a reference to the tiles used to bake the bread in fireplace embers). He didn't actually get his hands on the book, however, until seven months later, in November.
The timing, in a way, proved fortunate: By November, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and Anda had hired Ed Witt as executive chef for The Partisan (then known as Parts & Labor before NRG opted to change it), the 100-seat bar and restaurant attached to Red Apron. Thanks to a stint at Il Buco in Manhattan, Witt had a firm enough grasp of Italian to read Anda's new book, which was written entirely in — you guessed it — Italian.
"When I was at Il Buco, I had to write the menu in Italian," says Witt. The ritual, the chef adds, allowed him to learn the "big words."
The book, it turns out, was worth the wait. "The first time we made it with this batch, it was like, ‘Lord have mercy! This is unbelievable. It worked,'” Anda says. There was just one compromise: The chefs opted to substitute olive oil for lard. To compensate, they'll roll a thin layer of rendered lard on each tigelle before griddling the bread on a sizzling plancha.
The tigelle is now the celebrity, name-above-the-"tile" bread at the newest Red Apron, the first location to feature breakfast. Anda and Witt have constructed a breakfast sandwich menu around the crusty rounds, which are deceivingly sturdy despite their petite size and cushy crumb. Among their six eye-openers is the Buenos Dias (an early prototype pictured above), a piquant chorizo sandwich with pickled onion, egg, cheddar and sour cream. Other sandwiches include the Southern Comfort (tasso ham, egg and spicy pimento cheese), the Morning Meatball (breakfast meatball with red-eye gravy) and the vegetarian Honey Ricotta (whipped ricotta, smoked pine nuts and Gala apples).
Don't want a full sandwich to launch your day? Red Apron will also offer a trio of "tigelle + amici" — or "tile and companions" in Italian and math symbols, more or less. The companions will include a rotating fresh cheese (starting with a housemade Calabrian), butter and housemade marmalades. Tiffany MacIsaac, executive pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, will bake pastries for the shop, including a scone that incorporates lard from pigs butchered at the Red Apron commissary. Ceremony Coffee out of Annapolis is working with the shop on its java program, which will focus on drip coffee and espresso drinks.
The tigelle makes a return appearance on the lunch menu (both breakfast and lunch menus below), where the bread will be used with a trio of sandwiches, including the Red Menace with 'nduja, a spicy spreadable sausage. Established Anda favorites, whether sandwiches or custom-made dogs, will pop up on D Street, too, although some in modified form. Anda has re-engineered his cotechino burger, slipping the patty into an entirely new outfit: a homemade kaiser roll layered with broccoli rabe and fontina cheese (pictured above). The same roll will serve as the base for Anda's revamped "beef + cheddar" sandwich.
You could say the kaiser roll completes the beefy bite.
"The whole reason I had asked Tiff [MacIsaac] to figure out how to make the kaiser was for that sandwich," Anda says. "It’s basically my ode to an Arby’s sandwich."
But back to the tigelle for one final thought: Before they're toasted in lard on the plancha, the breads are baked in special tigellieras (think: electric waffle irons, with a floral pattern) that Anda had to track down in Italy. Buying the devices proved no easier than creating the tigelle dough. Anda found three online, but the seller required an Italian credit card. What's more, the price to ship the tigellieras was "five times the amount" of the irons. Anda turned to a former sous chef and her husband who were living in Milan, but coming back to Virginia.
"She still had her Italian credit and she spoke perfect Italian. She called and placed this order for me," Anda says. "When they moved all their stuff back to the States, they took [the tigellieras] with them."
Red Apron Butcher, 709 D St. NW, opens Wednesday. The Partisan, the evening-only restaurant, is tentatively expected to open in mid-March.