When Simply Bread closed nearly two years ago, it was a major blow for those of us who love crusty, European-style bread. Good news is: there's a new bakery called Mediterra Bakehouse in town (well, in Coolidge, to be precise), and they're turning out ravishing artisan loaves -- large and heavy with dark crunchy crusts so caramelized they lend a sweet, nutty quality to the bread. A far cry from the airy, tasteless crap with 1500 ingredients you can't even pronounce that comes from the grocery store. That's not even bread, but I digress.
Owner Nick Ambeliotis opened his bakery here in AZ last summer, and he's already established an impressive wholesale clientele. Then again, he's hardly new to the business. Four of his adult children run the original Mediterra Bakehouse in Pittsburgh, which has been going strong for 12 years. How did he get to Arizona and how can you get to him? Here's the lowdown.
Ambeliotis and his family discovered they loved Arizona after making a few trips to Florence to visit the Greek Orthodox monastery there. "I never considered myself a Florida guy," he says, alluding to the retirement he probably won't be taking for quite a while now. After he and his wife started visiting Arizona more often, he realized he didn't "see any bread like we do." And so, after talking to Whole Foods and Marriott (two of his clients in Pittsburgh), he realized he might be on to something he could do in his adopted state. He bought an affordable building in Coolidge and enlisted a master oven builder from Italy to hand-craft a 20,000-pound brick oven capable of baking 400-500 loaves at a time.
Ambeliotis -- who has worked in bakeries all over Europe (including long stints in Greece) and staged at famous bakeries here in the States -- follows a traditional formula: cold water, unblemished flour, little to no yeast and time-honored techniques such as slow fermentation (up to 18 hours), hand kneading and starter "so clean and fragrant it fills a room."
His philosophy is "less is more" and to that end, he uses few ingredients (sometimes nothing more than flour, salt and water) but great ingredients, many of them locally sourced. He buys nearly 30% of his grains (flax, millet, wheat, buckwheat and cornmeal, for example) from local farms and gets his honey from a guy in Tempe.
Mediterra currently bakes about 20 different breads -- many of them lead-heavy, all of them gorgeous -- including rosemary-olive loaf, San Francisco sourdough, ciabatta, chile-cheddar, Jewish rye, sesame semolina, Parmesan-peppercorn, Paesano, rustic Italian, Pascha bread (a festive Greek bread) and Mt. Athos Fire Bread (their flagship), a rustic country bread made with organic, germ-restored wheat flour prepared by a seventh-generation miller in North Carolina.
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You can eat Mediterra bread at Cowboy Ciao, FnB, Kelly's at Southbridge and The House, as well as at resorts such as the Arizona Biltmore, Four Seasons, Marriott Desert Ridge, Ritz Carlton, Renaissance, The Buttes and the Westin downtown. Or you can buy Mediterra Bread at Bodega, Oil and Olives and Queen Creek Olive Mill, as well as these farmers markets: Scottsdale, North Central, Phoenix Public, Gilbert and Mesa. Prices range between $3-$4 for a baguette, going as high as $9 for something like the cranberry-pecan loaf. But before you die of sticker shock, let me just add: the cranberry-pecan loaf contains way more cranberries and pecans than flour. It's a dense, chewy, wondrous thing, so heavy it could also serve as a weapon (i.e., Colonel Mustard, in the library, with a Mediterra cranberry-pecan loaf). It's worth every penny.
If you're going to the farmers market, don't dawdle. Mediterra often sells out well before the day is through.