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How do you define a bakery? If a shop produces its own bread, croissants, cookies, and some manner of breakfast bread that serves as an alternative to the croissant, I call it a bakery.
Jamaica Plain in Boston, then, has three real bakeries: Fiore's Italian Bakery, Blue Frog, and Canto 6. Each one has a strong local following, but which is the best?
With a name like "Fiore's Italian Bakery," I expected to see some Italian baked goods. The bakery cases that dominate the South Street cafe style shop had some S-shaped esse cookies, but if there were panettone and cannoli I missed them.
Their baguettes ($2.75) and croissants ($2) while shapely, are flaccid and underbaked (the baguette folded itself in half when I tucked it under arm to carry out of the shop, as if wilting). The oatmeal raisin cookies ($2) had good toasted oat flavors but were oddly boozy, like the raisins had spent the night with some vanilla extract. The charm of oatmeal cookies is their wholesomeness; over-sugaring and boozing them up robs them of their greatest asset.
The raisins made an appearance in the bread pudding, where they work much better. They're the most Old World thing on display, baked in individual-sized portions ($3). They turned out to be the best regular dessert Fiore's has going for them.
With such mediocre product, you'd wonder where Fiore's gets its local reputation: turns out it's for their vegan and gluten-free baked goods. That explains everything.
Fiore's Italian Bakery
55 South Street, Boston MA 02130 (map) 617-524-9200
Until you hear about Canto 6, it may be under your radar. Nowhere near JP's main commercial district on Centre Street, the caged entrance to the Washington Street bakery blends in with the surrounding auto repair shops, community centers, and bodega-style markets.
But behind the barred gate is a refined and inviting neighborhood bakery. The few seats don't establish it as a real hang, but that doesn't detract from the artful selections on display in the modestly-sized display counter.
Canto 6 had the best croissant ($2) I tasted; yeasty and butter laden. While it was crisp and flaky on the outside, the interior had structural problems; Individual layers were too thick and elastic. The blueberry galette ($2.25), which was like a blueberry-filled pastry pouch, was cute, but it looked better than it tasted. The deep folds didn't cook fully. And they topped it with an oatmeal crumble laced with a muddle of baking spices.
However, Canto 6 achieved a harmonious warm spice blend in its ginger molasses cookie ($1.75). The scones ($1.95) were sweeter than a muffin might be, but largely due to the sugar wash applied to the scone's craggy crust. And while the flavor behind the sugar was delicate, the moist interior was overstated.
Canto 6 bakes a solid baguette ($3), better than just about any in town besides Brookline's Clear Flour. The crackling crust and good irregular holes throughout are both characteristic of a well-made loaf.
Canto 6 Bakery & Cafe
3346 Washington Street, Boston MA 02130 (map) 617-983-8688
Blue Frog is tucked away on a side street right off of Centre, It's tiny; just large enough to accommodate a couple of patrons. It turns out that this place is actually one of the better bakeries in town.
Their scones are more English than American, sparingly sweetened and enjoyable plain, but dry enough to take butter or jam. Pain au chocolat ($2.25) was fluffy, airy, and not too buttery—perfect for coffee dunking purposes if you want to pretend to be French.
The baguette ($3) had a beautiful, bubbly crust. It was substantial, but maintained its elasticity and resistance. Oatmeal cookies ($1.50) here hit the mark with a good chew and crisp edge—sweet without making you need a trip to the dentist.
The only discordant note was the baguette's flavor; it was a bit bland. The most prominent flavor was reminiscent of, well, Honey Smacks. Maybe it's good for a sandwich or as a vehicle for other flavors, but on its own, don't expect a ride to Flavor Country.
Blue Frog Bakery
3 Green Street, Boston MA 02130 (map) 617-983-3764
Bottom line: In Jamaica Plain, you can't judge a bakery by its cover.
The more refined Canto 6 put forth good versions of bakery workhorses, like baguettes, cookies, and croissants, but got lost in the details of their more elegant offerings. A more subtle approach would help truly refine their confections. The smallest shop with the cutesy name, Blue Frog, delivered some of the more restrained and well-baked items. They show one-stop bakery potential. And the Italian-named Fiore's, adored by vegans and gluten boycotters, has lost sight of its roots.