Across America, the artisanal bread movement converted many people raised on loaves of spongy white bread into connoisseurs of French batards and crusty country loaves. La Spiga is one of the main promoters of this movement in New Orleans. Dana Logsdon and her mother, Mary, who grew up in the German baking tradition of Wisconsin, began selling their breads and pastries at the Crescent City Farmers Market in 1997. At the Saturday market, I often munch on a savory galette, a flaky pastry filled with artichoke leaves and moist black olive tapenade, while shopping for my vegetables. On Thursday at the Mid-City market, I can always find at La Spiga's booth a delicious afternoon snack, such as a ginger cookie with fresh, powdered and crystallized ginger that creates a rounded taste that lingers on the tongue.
Soon after La Spiga started, it found a home in the old location of Ferrara's Grocery on Chartres Street in Faubourg Marigny. The neighborhood is closely associated with baking. Today, Alois J. Binder bakes bread on Frenchmen Street and Hubig makes its famous fried pies a few blocks over on Dauphine Street. According to Dana Logsdon, the entire neighborhood used to be filled with small German bakeries. The yeasty smell of baking bread must have hung over every block.
La Spiga for many years has opened its doors to the public only on Saturday. The neighbors asked for longer hours, so the Logsdons now serve breakfast and lunch from Thursday to Saturday. In the fall, they plan to open all week. Beyond the bread and pastries found at the farmer's markets, La Spiga also offers a small menu of soups, salads and sandwiches.
I stopped by La Spiga's for lunch one afternoon, and I felt less like a customer than a guest in the Logsdons' kitchen. Inside, it looked like a European cafe. Little signs made me realize that I was in a workspace where the restaurant was not the only concern. In the corner sat a shelf full of cookbooks, classic works on baking and Italian and French cooking. I could imagine Dana and Mary converting a table into their office and spreading out those cookbooks as they planned next week's specials. As I waited for my lunch, Dana came to my table and handed me a sample of the lime pound cake. It was the gesture of a proud baker wanting me to try her handiwork.
At breakfast, La Spiga sells the pastries and baked goods that have made the bakery a favorite at the farmer's markets. A muffin was full of tart local strawberries and topped with a crisp layer of sugar. Flaky buttermilk biscuits are available plain or filled with green onions and cheddar cheese. La Spiga also makes a version of the Egg McMuffin: one of those delicious biscuits stuffed with sausage or a slice of frittata. The sausage was too lean and dry, but the frittata was creamy and full of artichokes.
Among the handful of lunch items, the sandwiches stand out because they are served on La Spiga's wonderful Italian-style bread. The Artychoke is a blend of artichoke hearts and Parmesan cheese between two slices of focaccia bread. The spread tastes likes a mixture of artichoke dip and pesto. The ham and cheese sandwich sounds basic, but the combination of the fresh focaccia bread and homemade mustard with dried fruits transcends the ordinary.
It almost seems like an insult to eat at a bakery without trying the pastries. All of La Spiga's desserts are buttery and moist with layers of delicate flavors. Baked turnovers are filled with seasonal fruits. The blueberry crisps are gooey and rich with a sweet crumb topping. The brownies, studded with raspberries, have a deep chocolate flavor.
Drawn by the freshly baked bread, the people who live around La Spiga seem to have made the bakery the center of the neighborhood. A few tourists from the area bed and breakfasts wander in and ask for directions to the French Quarter. Most of the customers, though, appear to have walked from home, many with their dogs in tow.
One afternoon as I sat at a table outside La Spiga, a decrepit dog lumbered toward me followed by his owner. "I don't normally drink in the afternoon," the man said with a beer in his hand, "but it's a wake. I have to put Moose down this afternoon." The dog's owner disappeared inside La Spiga and emerged a few moments later with a slice of pound cake. "They have the best pound cake," he yelled from the corner. He broke off a piece and fed it to Moose. Bread, Raymond Carver once wrote, is always "a small, good thing."