THUNDER BAY -- Derek Lucchese’s career in baking started with a book from the library about sourdough bread.
Living in northern Manitoba with plenty of time on his hands (and good bread hard to find,) he started baking bread, which led to a book about brick ovens. When he moved to Thunder Bay, he found out that the author of the book, Alan Scott, lived only a few hours away in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
He took a course in building ovens in the spring of 2000, built his own oven at his house that summer, and started selling bread at the Thunder Bay Country Market the following year.
Thunder Bay’s appetite for artisanal sourdough bread was strong - from selling 60 to 70 loaves a week, he scaled up to 300 to 400 loaves within a few months. “By 2008, I was making 600 loaves every Saturday morning for the market.”
Now, Lucchese and his wife Sue Holloway own Both Hands Wood-Fired Pizzeria and Bakery, frequently voted best pizza in Thunder Bay in the Walleye magazine’s annual “Best of Thunder Bay” readers’ survey.
The bakery and restaurant on Algoma is small, functional and cozy, with handmade birch chairs (made by Lucchese himself) and a giant brick oven looming behind the counter. He built the oven, of course, and it fits 30 to 40 loaves at a time.
All the bread baking is done first thing in the morning; the fire is lit, and by the time it has gone out and the ashes swept clean, the bricks hold enough heat to bake three or four batches of bread (at 600F) before it becomes too cool. Even then, it’s a toasty 400F - and staff light another fire, which is kept going all day for pizza.
Pizza temperature is around 650F and at that temperature, with the dough sitting directly on the hot bricks, it only takes two to three minutes to cook a pizza.
Birch is the wood of choice; “when you’re doing pizza, the fire is right there and you can’t have it sparking and popping onto the pizza. You can’t use pine or spruce, and even poplar pops and crackles.,” Lucchese explains. He burns about 15 cords of wood a year.
All the rye, whole wheat and partially sifted (whole wheat) flour comes from Brule Creek farm, and the peasant bread and buns are the only items that use yeast. Everything else is made with sourdough, with no added gluten.
There is fresh pizza and five kinds of bread available daily (open from Wednesday to Saturday) and the cinnamon raisin bread is only available on Saturdays.
Recently, Lucchese added croissants (with chocolate and without) to the menu, available Fridays and Saturdays.
Lucchese has come a long way from the library book that set him off on this path. Since they opened in 2014, he and his wife now employ 11 people and the restaurant churns out some 120 pizzas on a Friday night.
They recently started Unplugged Wednesdays - if you dine in for dinner and everyone at the table puts their phone in a jar on the table for the duration of their meal and actually talk to each other, you get 20 per cent off your bill. Are people able to resist? “We’ve had some people say, ‘no, I wasn’t able to,” so people are honest,” Lucchese laughs. If you’re afraid you might not have anything to talk about, look in the jar for suggestions.