In Italian households, no bread goes to waste. Old bread can be turned into panzanella salad or used as a thickener for stew. But it's the crumbs that don't always get enough credit.
While it's not uncommon to find a crunchy crust of crumbs on mac and cheese, a couple of D.C. restaurants sprinkle breadcrumbs on dishes as liberally as others do parmesan cheese.
"My guys sometimes have to say, 'Hey, this doesn't need it,' because I put it on everything," says The Red Hen chef Mike Friedman. Currently, three pastas, a salad, and a burrata dish are all topped with breadcrumbs.
Friedman explains breadcrumbs are a great vehicle for flavor. He makes a variety of flavored breadcrumbs out of day-old focaccia, which is made in-house for complimentary bread baskets. To accompany a grilled radicchio, cucumber, chickpea, and chopped egg salad, Friedman dices the bread, tosses it with lots of olive oil and grated parmesan cheese, bakes it, then pulses it in a food processor.
To top a cavatelli dish with sauerkraut and smoked bacon, Friedman combines the breadcrumbs with a black pepper-spiked mustard butter and then bakes them. "It's a way for me to incorporate acid into a dish that might need it without having to add vinegar or citrus," he explains.
The breadcrumbs also add a nice crunch—not so different from the appeal of sugary sprinkles: "They don't have any flavor, but they add texture to a really nice soft-serve when you're at the beach," Friedman says.
Breadcrumbs will also be incorporated into the menu of All Purpose, coming to Shaw from the owners of The Red Hen and Boundary Stone. "Breadcrumbs are a part of our lives," Friedman says. "We're not letting go of those."
Tail Up Goat chef Jon Sybert is also a big fan: "I'm a huge texture freak."
Sybert uses breadcrumbs on all of the pastas on the menu of the new bread-loving Adams Morgan restaurant, which bakes 20 to 25 loaves every day.
"You don't always use it all," Sybert explains. "So at the end of the night, we cut everything we have into pretty thin slices and just let it sit out overnight." Within a couple days, it's dry enough to be turned into breadcrumbs.
Sybert uses the somewhat unusual method of pressing the bread through perforated hotel pans. "It's annoying, but it's the perfect size" Sybert says of the technique. "It's a little bigger than I think a lot of people like their breadcrumbs, but I really like the texture."
The restaurant even bakes some bread just for the crumbs. Loaves of red fife sourdough are ground down and combined with butter, olive oil, and Calabrian chilies to accompany a fresh pasta with fermented honey sausage. When the restaurant has extra loaves, it advertises them for sale on Instagram.
Other pastas get their own custom breadcrumbs: Rutabaga ravioli are paired with gingerbread breadcrumbs made of brown rice bread mixed with savory gingerbread cookies (baked exclusively for this purpose). Cavatelli with octopus ragu comes with crumbs from chocolate rye bread with butter, olive oil, lemon zest, and a touch of garlic.
"You can add so many different flavors," Sybert says.
Photo from Tail Up Goat by Jessica Sidman