Food & dining

Devra First

Learning how to make Bertucci’s beloved rolls

On a Monday, the letter came. The sender was as impassioned as he was cordial, even though he had every right to read me the riot act. After all, I had just insulted his rolls.

It was Rosario Del Nero, vice president of culinary and executive chef at Bertucci’s, where the most beloved product might just be the free rolls that start every meal, arriving steaming beside a dish of flavored olive oil.

“Objectively speaking, the rolls are not that good,” I had written in a story for the Globe. I called them doughy and bland. I said their chief redeeming attribute was that they were hot.

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I had it all wrong, Del Nero said. “Our rolls can be described as ‘Columbus’s egg’: they are so simple that many think that they have always existed,” he wrote. “We honor every guest by offering — not just a roll — but the fruit of our daily hard work. And by the way, our rolls ARE delicious.” Then he invited me to make an “appuntamento” to cook with him at Bertucci’s. “If you leave with the same opinion, fair enough, but please allow me the opportunity to properly acquaint you with a Bertucci’s classic.”

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He signed off: “Until we ‘break bread’ together, I leave you with a fundamental belief we hold dear: Bread is simple, bread is memories, bread is life.”

Of course I made the appuntamento. How could I not?

And so it is that I arrive at the Newton branch of Bertucci’s one recent morning. Del Nero is waiting, dressed in a red chef’s jacket, black clogs, and a Bertucci’s ball cap. He is ready to change my mind. With the flair of a magician, he brandishes a roll fresh out of the oven. He breaks it open with a crunch, and steam billows forth. Voila! “Nice and crunchy, you open it and it’s soft inside, you see the steam coming out . . . ” It is the signature Bertucci’s roll. Now I want to know how it’s made.

We’ll begin with the dough. Del Nero started working at Bertucci’s in the early ’90s, after four years running his own restaurant, the Apple Orchard, in Ipswich. He was born near Lake Como in Italy, grew up in the Buenos Aires neighborhood where writer Jorge Luis Borges once lived, went to college in Milan, and became a petroleum geologist. Then he married his English teacher, Constance, who was in Italy studying Renaissance art (they wrote a book on risotto together); her mother lived on the North Shore. “Food had been a passion, a hobby,” he says. “I realized I loved it. It came naturally.”

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He first got to know Bertucci’s founder Joey Crugnale as a customer there. Then he signed on. Del Nero later followed his friend to another venture, the Naked Fish. He taught at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts; he worked in R&D for pasta companies. On the side, he earned a Master of Liberal Arts in Spanish language and literature from Harvard’s Extension School. (He wrote his thesis on “Tango: The Living Poetry of Buenos Aires.” Borges!) And then he came back to Bertucci’s in 2016. Subsequent owners had changed things. There was work to be done. “There was no real Italian soul,” he says. “They put jambalaya on the menu!”

Even the rolls had changed. “They changed the sugar and salt,” he says. “Small things, but it was different.” He brought back the original formula and many of the original techniques. It’s still a work in progress, but he believes in the company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April and was recently acquired by Earl Enterprises.

“Food in a kind of a Proustian way is memory,” he says. His mother still makes pasta at home; his meatball recipe at Bertucci’s is an adaptation of hers. Although inviting me to cook with him seems a little like a publicity stunt, it feels genuine. He’s done the same with others in the past, like the guy who complained about those very meatballs. Del Nero managed to change his mind.

Now how about mine? He whisks me off to a room presided over by Nova Blanc, who is originally from Haiti and now spends his days mixing the ingredients for Italian breads and pizza. “When I was in my country I never made dough,” Blanc says. “I learned here.” He has been at Bertucci’s for almost 18 years. (Many of the people behind Bertucci’s are immigrants, starting with Crugnale himself. Some former employees have returned to Brazil and opened their own restaurants based on the food they learned here; in Ecuador, Del Nero says, there’s even a restaurant called Bertucci’s, with the exact same menu.)

There’s a walk-in filled with tray after tray of dough stacked high. There’s a Hobart mixer so big you could bathe a small child in its bowl. There’s a Dutchess dough divider, an appliance R2-D2 could get a crush on, its oblong body tapering up to a metal plate where innocent rounds of dough are placed, only to be slashed into square pieces with domed tops. The Dutchess can cut 5,000 pieces an hour. It’s used on Navy ships, Del Nero tells me. On the wall behind the dough divider are charts and diagrams he has devised to help staff make optimal product. A set of bell curves identifies the ranges that produce “Excellent Dough.”

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How many rolls does a Bertucci’s go through in a day? “Hundreds and hundreds, even thousands,” Del Nero says. “We make a lot of rolls.”

Newton- 06/14/18- Executive chef Rosario Del Nero of Bertucci's makes his famous rolls at their Newton Corner location. The fire in the brick oven. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(lifestyle)
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
The fire in the brick oven at the Newton branch of Bertucci’s.

‘I compare the life of the chef or cook or restaurateur to the opera singer. You’re only as good as your last performance.’

Now I get a black Bertucci’s cap of my own, plus an apron and some gloves. We head back past the pizza oven, 900 degrees at its hottest, lunchtime pies beginning to be paddled into its blazing maw. (I’ll later make one of these, too, choosing my own combination of toppings. “If it’s really good, we’ll call it the Devra,” Del Nero announces with a smile.)

With a dough scraper, I lift pieces of dough off a sheet, swipe the bottoms through golden semolina, and put them on another sheet: five across, six down, chef Mary Carman tells me. She’s worked at Bertucci’s for 23 years and can probably do in her sleep what I’m currently making a slightly sticky mess of.

“I can compare a little bit the life of a chef, of a cook, of a restaurateur to the opera singer,” Del Nero says. “You’re only as good as your last performance. Every day is a new day. It’s magic, it’s beautiful, until something goes wrong. Then you have to fix it, try again, start again.”

The rolls’ ingredients are simple: flour, water, oil, salt, yeast, a little sugar. It’s the process that distinguishes them. They are baked every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day. The dough is fermented for 36 to 48 hours, a length of time that imparts greater flavor. And after the rolls are shaped, they are proofed — given an additional resting period — for two hours. Then, to help ensure they get their crisp signature crust: a generous spritz from a bottle containing water, salt, and extra virgin olive oil. Del Nero learned the trick from the best. “That was from Julia [Child], I swear on my mother,” he says, showing me an old picture of himself with the famous chef.

Into the Viking convection oven they go. “Every oven has its own personality,” Del Nero says. “This oven has been hot for 30 years.”

The rolls emerge golden and puffed. They look just right. The crust crunches when I pull one apart. Steam billows forth. I have made actual Bertucci’s rolls! (With a lot of help from actual Bertucci’s professionals!)

Honestly, I’m still more excited by my pizza, which I top with artichokes, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil. Before it goes into the oven, Del Nero brushes the edges with olive oil: “The blessing,” he says.

Newton- 06/14/18- Executive chef Rosario Del Nero of Bertucci's makes his famous rolls at their Newton Corner location. The finished rolls freshed out of the oven. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(lifestyle)
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Rolls fresh out of the oven at Bertucci’s.

But I do understand what he is telling me. Bertucci’s rolls are more than the ingredients that go into them. They are more, even, than the process by which they are made. They are the sum of the people who make them, and the people who love them. That’s as cheesy as Bertucci’s lasagna rustica, but it’s also true.

“Food is community,” Del Nero says. “None of this would be possible without all these people who make this happen together.”

My rolls are pretty good, I’ll admit. They are definitely very hot. I take off my Bertucci’s hat. It says “Maestro” on the back. “Keep it,” Del Nero says. “You earned it.” We hug goodbye.

Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.