I don’t usually feel an irresistible pull to stab my food. Particularly not in of-the-moment eateries such as Bar Totti’s. But during recent visits to the joyful Italian spot, I’ve channelled my inner Arya Stark, gripped my knife and gone at the puffy woodfired bread like a woman possessed. Stab one releases the steam; stab two is just for pleasure.
By the fourth or fifth incision the bread starts to deflate, ready for diners to tear off a hunk and stuff it with delicious foodstuffs.
I thought I was the only one with a penchant for knifing my bread, until my dining mates went at it with just as much vigour. This bread just brings it out in people.
The woodfired bread – which is served straight from the oven, inflated to a height of about 10 centimetres, like a benign, bready pufferfish – is the creation of Mike Eggert, executive chef of the original Totti’s in Bondi and Bar Totti’s. He says me and my friends aren’t the only ones taking out their primal angst on the $11 dish. “Everybody does it,” he tells Broadsheet. “There’s a direct correlation between stabbings and Boomerangs [on Instagram].”
Once the flurry of stabbing is out of the way, it’s eating time. Here’s how to tackle it. Tip one: don’t order any less than one bread between two people. You don’t want to regret only getting a third (or, god forbid, a mere quarter) to yourself rather than (at least) a half. Tip two: divide it before you start eating. If the person you’re breaking bread with is a more efficient eater than you, you may end up with less bread than you deserve. And that would be deeply unfair (though a reasonable excuse to order more bread).
Before you start digging into whatever antipasti you’ve ordered to go with this giant puffball of carbs, pull off a strip and eat it by itself. It’s sprinkled with salt, which makes everything better – even already near-perfect bread. There’s a pleasant char that comes from a minute spent in the woodfired oven, and it’s somehow both light and incredibly chewy.
Now that you’ve sampled the bread, it’s dipping and loading time. At both Totti’s and Bar Totti’s there are an overwhelming number of antipasti to go with your bread – I’d suggest bringing at least four friends (or strangers, you do you) along so you can put a good dint in the menu. The pickled octopus is a must – the oil it comes in means the joy lingers for several minutes after the mollusc itself has been consumed (you use the bread to swipe it off the plate, naturally). The mortadella is a must because you can place it between the folds of the bread. You could even make a little DIY sandwich with a slice of provolone in there as well.
You might also feel like you’d like to add in the spicy, spreadable Italian ‘nduja, or maybe a good hunk of chicken parfait. The burrata’s creaminess is a delightful textural contrast to the bread’s chewiness, and the smooshiness of figs in honey intermingled with the salty bread leads to a pleasant sweet-and-savoury tongue dance.
Perhaps you might whack some in-season tomatoes into this baby to make it taste good. (I did; it did.) Or mushrooms, sardines, peppers or salami. Honestly, I’m struggling to think of anything you can’t enjoy with this king of breads. Case in point: Eggert sometimes eats his with crispy chicken skin and lettuce. “We get bored, so eventually we put everything in,” he says. “We chop up ‘nduja with mushrooms and roll it inside. We make a chilli oil … and when I’m in the kitchen I’ll suavely have ricotta or maybe melted provolone, and add chilli oil.”
Totti’s woodfired bread almost wasn’t the carby crowning achievement it is within Sydney’s bread scene. “I was just going to use a baked focaccia, and Justin [Hemmes, CEO of Merivale and owner of Totti’s] was like, ‘I want a big wood oven in the middle of the room on display’. I was like ‘fuck’, but he’s a genius so I thought he might have a point.”
Eggert spoke to his girlfriend, a pizzaiolo, and came up with the woodfired bread. It’s fermented for 48 hours, and when it’s ordered, Totti’s pizzaiolos press it (stretching its proteins) and put it on a paddle to slide into the woodfired oven. Eggert won’t give away all his secrets – copycats have been popping up around the city and beyond – but the rest of the process requires the perfect balance of temperature, charcoal and flame.
The Bondi Totti’s sold 60,000 serves of the bread last year, but that number will likely be smashed this year thanks to the second outpost that opened in the CBD in January. Eggert reckons the bread’s popularity could come down to the fact people have to use their hands to eat it.
“People love food that they have to be part of – tearing the bread up, watching the steam,” he says. “If people are using their hands, there’s lots more conversation going on. It’s an inclusive way to eat. You can be sitting there with a vegan, someone who eats pork and someone who only eats meat, and there’ll be something for everyone. There’s no stigma, no pressure. It’s a choose-your-adventure; you can pick and choose what you want.”
That’s part of the reason I can’t get enough of this bread – all the different accompaniments I can have with it. I’m notoriously indecisive. My favourite chocolate is Cadbury Snack, because I get a little bit of everything. Wine flights are my bag, and chef’s choice menus are my saving grace. While the bread is the star, the bit players round out the experience. There’s a metaphor somewhere in there, I’m just too busy stabbing my dinner to find it.
“I Can't Stop Thinking About” is a series about Sydney dishes Broadsheet Sydney editors are obsessed with.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on March 2, 2020. Menu items may have changed since publication. During Sydney's lockdown the bread is available to take away.