Early risers browse the stalls on an incandescent Saturday morning at the Northport Farmers Market, hunting for pristine local produce and a coffee and croissant to jump-start their weekend. Robert Biancavilla, 59, founder and baker at Duck Island Bread Company, hasn’t slept since Thursday night. Yet, he stands ready to welcome customers, many who are neighbors, with a smile and a stunning array of artisan breads.
Biancavilla and his wife, Sherri, staff an open-air boulangerie, comparable to what one might find at a Parisian market, overflowing with loaves and pastries baked in classic French style. You’ll find hearty boules, buxom, buttery croissants, glistening cinnamon buns and crusty, aromatic organic rye loaves, all hand-rolled and shaped by Biancavilla.
His life and schedule resembles that of a culinary superhero—“Deputy Bureau Chief, Homicide Bureau for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office” by day and artisan baker by night.
“Yesterday I was in the midst of a murder trial, and I was in the courtroom until quarter-to-five, and then I drove from Riverhead to the bakery, and I stayed up all night long baking what you see here today,” says Biancavilla. He typically catches up on his sleep on Saturday afternoon.
The East Williston native worked part-time baking bagels through high school and college and enjoyed the craft. But it wasn’t until he contemplated life after retirement that he enrolled in an artisan bread course at the French Culinary Institute. He became smitten with artisan bread and has since completed numerous professional workshops at King Arthur Flour in Vermont. The Eaton’s Neck resident founded Duck Island Bread Company in 2011, named for a small peninsula that frames Northport Harbor.
The quintessential hometown baker, Biancavilla bakes at a nearby commercial kitchen, sells at the market, supplies to Caffe Portofino in Northport and fulfills special orders. Between January and March, he sells at the Northport Winter Market.
He acknowledges a fascination with the science of bread baking and uses it to extract maximum flavor, promising to “bake no bread before its time.”
“If you buy bread in the supermarket, it tastes like a piece of cardboard,” says Biancavilla. “You cut into a bread that’s been properly fermented, and you can smell it the minute you cut into it. You actually smell the wheat.”
To achieve that flavor, he nurtures three types of starter dough on his kitchen counter, one that was created by his instructor, bread legend Jeff Hamelman, in Germany 30 years ago.
“We call them ‘my kids,’” Biancavilla says of the starters. Many of his recipes will ferment for up to 18 hours before baking in order to achieve the desired tangy, pungent flavor.
He decries the mechanization and industrialization of bread. “I make everything by hand, “ he says. “Everything is done traditionally, the way it was done a thousand years ago.”
Biancavilla shrugs off the inevitable comparisons to his day job and jokes that his law colleagues are most interested in whether he has leftovers to share on Monday morning. Yet it is hard to dismiss the delicious irony that someone who spends his professional life prosecuting destructive forces in the community devotes his personal time to creating “the staff of life.”
Biancavilla is more circumspect. “It’s a passion,” he says. “It’s not work for me.”
He gestures to the abundance of loaves that fill the stall. “On Wednesday, all this was a 50-pound bag of flour,” he says. “I want people to think about Duck Island Bread as the guy that makes everything from scratch.”
Duck Island Bread Company