The mother yeast at Urban Village Brewing Company in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia was started four years ago in co-owner Tom Revelli's Old City apartment. It took some trial and error, but Revelli eventually got what he was looking for. Now that "mother yeast" is the base for the first breads and brick oven pizza dough in Philadelphia made from naturally fermented yeast dough.
At the restaurant's media preview, I had the chance to try the bread and the pizzas made from the natural fermentation method. I also had the chance to ask Revelli about his special doughs that he learned to make mostly by watching YouTube videos, reading blogs and looking at Instagram photos. I wanted to know more — like what's different about the end result when you don't ferment with commercial yeast? — so I asked him a few questions.
Making naturally fermented dough
About four years ago, Revelli started working on a mother yeast from flour, water and salt. Following the tradition of mother yeast, he added no commercial yeast or sugar. Instead, he allowed the natural yeast and sugar roaming in the air to ferment his starter.
"The first [dough] I made was not that great," Revelli said. Over the next two years, he played with the amount of flour and hydration in the dough made from the "sons" taken from the original mother. In those two years he perfected it in the small kitchen in his apartment in Old City Philadelphia, using a 1970s electric oven that had the ability to reach 650 degrees F so he could test breads and pizza dough in it.
Now, four years after Revelli began his experiment, that yeast — which is unique to the area — is used for the bread and pizza dough at Urban Village.
"It's almost like a pet of mine," said Revelli. "I wake up and feed my starter."
The same starter is used for both the bread served at the restaurant and the pizza dough, but different amounts of water are added as well as different amounts and types of flour.
The pizza dough is fermented for three days, and the time improves the flavor and breaks down the gluten more than if the dough had been fermented for only one day, although it's not considered gluten-free. The process also creates a chewy crust that blooms in the oven.
"This is something special," said Revelli.
How does it taste?
The bread and pizza dough at Urban Village Brewing Company are worthy of a trip across the bridge from South Jersey to Philadelphia for me. The bread is tart and nutty, with a crisp crust and a soft, chewy inside. The combination of the bread toasted and served with the house-made ricotta is a real treat.
The pizza dough is light and chewy with plenty of desirable air bubbles. It's a bit sour and it has a nice smokiness to it from the brick oven. I agree with Revelli: It's something special.
The restaurant is a brew pub, so there are plenty of well-made, fresh beers to pair with the pizzas, but what got me super excited during my visit were the local Pennsylvania wines — the only wines the restaurant served — and they were on tap.
I went to Urban Village to learn about naturally fermented dough, and I did. But, I also left with a new must-visit restaurant in Philadelphia, the city that shined at this year's James Beard Awards.