Scratch Bakery (Durham, NC)

Phoebe Lawless is the baker behind Scratch, a Durham start-up that is garnering widespread attention (see recent mention and recipe in Bon Appetit magazine).  And deservedly so, as she creates some amazing pies, pastries, and treats.  Last week, Lawless opened her highly anticipated retail location on a quiet, leafy side street in downtown Durham.  It’s an immensely charming space, with a clean, modern feel.  The glass store-front, high ceilings, and exposed brick walls give an airy, casual ambience. The tables are heavily lacquered turquoise wood, the floor is a nice smooth tile, and the remaining walls are brightly colored without being overbearing.  A smattering of outdoor tables lends a nice European café feel and makes you want to linger.

Back inside, a glass-fronted counter showcases all manner of tempting creations, with little chalkboard signs describing the offerings and their prices.  A recent visit confounded with choices like local lamb & rice empanada, pesto & farmers cheese stromboli, zucchini crostata, some kind of bruschetta involving a giant wedge of cheese, and, of course, donut muffins – dense, cake-like muffins rolled in immense quantities of sugar.  But that was not all.  As we sat eating, more goodies arrived, notably slices of pizza, with topping like guanciale/garlic scape/asiago or new potato/broccoli/ricotta.  Further down the counter, a glass case featured more of the sweeter creations, such as a crumb cake, a blueberry pie, and some cheesecake squares, among others.  Still further down the counter, another glass case featured some vegetable side dishes and cold salad items, such that you could really put together a nice lunch.  Without exception, everything looked beautifully crafted and delicious.

Where Scratch really excels, I think, is with the execution of its crusts and crostatas.  But it’s not just the extraordinary crusts, it’s the fillings too.  The zucchini/sautéed onion/cheese crostata we tried was fabulous.  In the past, I’ve had a butternut squash/chorizo empanada and a dark chocolate/sea salt pie that were among the best pastries I’ve ever eaten.  By constrast, the pesto stromboli was definitely yummy, but I found the dough to be too soft and fluffy-pillow like, and I felt there was not enough of the filling.  A simple sticky bun was nicely nuanced but a touch dry.  And the lemon shaker pie I tried, while beautifully executed, was difficult to eat.  I felt it needed a bit more sugar to counter the dominating taste of the lemon slices.

In the end, Scratch is a terrific addition to the Triangle dining scene.  It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in a much bigger city.  The bakery fosters a wonderful link to the area’s farmers by featuring local organic ingredients almost exclusively.  To be sure, the top-notch ingredients and excellent craftsmanship are reflected in the bakery’s prices – at $4 for slice of pizza, $5 for a small crostata or slice of pie, or $6 for a (fairly large) empanada, you can run up a big bill quickly.  But the quality of the food is well worth it.  When we were there the place was packed, and I hope it stays that way.

P.S. Scratch also sells at the Durham farmer’s market on Saturdays and, for the truly converted, (all it takes is one bite), through her pie-a-week subscription plan.  Check out their website (under construction) at: