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Mars Blackman: What makes Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player in the universe? Is it the shoes?
Michael Jordan: No, Mars.
Mars Blackman: Money, it’s got to be the shoes!
Michael Jordan: Nah.
Mars Blackman: Are you sure it’s not the shoes?
Michael Jordan: No, Mars!
Unlike that iconic 1991 Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee, for A&M Pizza Restaurants in Lebanon County, it’s got to be the bread. It’s all about the bread.
A simple blending of flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, and oil. Just the right amounts, combined in just the right way.
Because of the uniqueness of A&M’s bread, it has almost become an integral piece of Lebanon County dining. One would be hard-pressed to identify a local resident who hasn’t enjoyed A&M’s bread, in one form or another.
In fact, that bread has given rise to a modest empire of local Italian restaurants in and around Lebanon County.
Salvatore Amato is one of three brothers, and a brother-in-law, who founded A&M Pizza Restaurant 40 years ago. He’s also a bread artisan.
“The homemade bread has been the key to the success,” said Amato, who runs the A&M Pizza at 1705 East Cumberland Street. “Good food is the key. I would say when we started, 90 percent of it was the bread. Now, maybe it’s less. Now there’s a lot of bread coming from Philadelphia. But you don’t see good bread.”
You can’t have good food without good bread. It all starts with the bread. Especially when it comes to Italian food.
Crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, A&M incorporates its bread into just about everything it serves. It’s the base for its pizza. It’s the rolls for its sandwiches. It’s the perfect complement to its dinners.
“This bread is the best,” said Amato. “There’s no doubt about it. We use it with meals and it’s the same dough we use for our pizzas. A lot of people think we make different dough for our sandwiches. We buy Amoroso rolls from a distributor. But the bread we make is better than the Amoroso rolls. To me, it’s better.”
With all of grandma’s old recipes, the secret ingredient was love. The secret to A&M bread’s flavor and texture is tradition—and repetition. With a few tweaks along the way, it’s been made the same way for more than 40 years.
The ingredients are just important as the process.
“I think the secret ingredient is the flour,” said Amato. “We use better flour. It’s also the way you let the bread rise.
“I think it’s gotten better over the years,” added Amato. “Probably because of the flour. Everything has to change based on the time of the year. In the summer time, you’ve got to change to cold water.”
Amato learned the art of making bread as a younger man in Italy, before he came to Lebanon. Over the years, A&M’s bread has been often copied locally, but never duplicated.
“We make two sizes, a large size then a regular size,” said Amato. “We make two large rolls out of a large bread and three regular sizes from a large bread. What you do is cut your dough. You work it a little bit. You put it in a steam tray and you let it rise. You wait 30-35 minutes and then you put it in the oven. But the dough has to rise.”
Over the years, AMato said, business has changed somewhat. But the bread has remained.
“Now, we’re at about 100 rolls a day,” he said. “There are a lot more side orders. We sell more paninis and wraps. But our bread is what’s keeping us afloat.”
In 1980, the Amatos opened the Lebanon area’s first A&M Italian Restaurant, at Seventh and Lehman Streets in the city. In a way, A&M took the locale by storm, and it was because of the bread.
Lebanon County residents had never tasted the kind of bread that A&M was serving.
“People still feel that way,” said Amato. “I can’t say I invented the bread. I can’t take the credit myself. I can make the bread. I can make real bread. Before we came here, I worked in a store in Italy making real bread. There wasn’t good Italian bread before we came here.”
Over those years, A&M grew and branched out, giving rise to about a dozen or so other Italian restaurants in the area. Some of those have remained in the family, while others have been sold off.
But the one remaining constant has been the bread.
“I worked for several other stores before,” said Amato. “Somebody was making it one way and somebody was making it another way. But then we started making it our own way. Lebanon is more a sub town than a pizza town.”
In some ways, A&M Pizza has helped the locale reshape the way it thinks about bread. In some cultures, bread is a staple. In some cultures, bread is a side course.
“In Italy, people eat bread every day. In grocery stores, sometimes you find it and sometimes you don’t. It’s a cultural thing.”
What’s worked for A&M Restaurants in the past also seems to be the key to its future: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“After a couple of years, I made sure someone knew how to make the bread,” said Amato. “Now, it’s a rotation. We can’t make everything ourselves. One guy learns how to make the bread, and then another guy learns.”
Money, it’s got to be the bread.
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This article was updated to correct the ingredient list for A&M’s bread. Neither milk nor eggs are used in the recipe.