Tuscany’s longstanding answer to a summery tomato sandwich has to be panzanella. Think of it as a Italian “bread salad” with ripe garden vegetables. What could be better? Tuscan cuisine is delicious yet unpretentious. It takes a lot of inspiration from home cooking and peasant origins, with its defining phrase “cucina povera” meaning “poor cooking.” Many of the most famous foods and dishes to come out of this region of central Italy are known for their simplicity. Cured meats, hearty stews like ribollita, and Florentine steak are all great examples of Tuscan staples, as is panzanella.
So whether you’re tasting these dishes while seated in a piazza in Florence or preparing them in your own kitchen, all you need to remember is fresh ingredients from the countryside (or your garden) yield the very best dishes. Read on to learn about the history of panzanella and discover traditional and creative recipes. And while you have Tuscany on the brain, check out our feature on the wine regions of tuscany. Salute!
The story behind “bread salad”
Can you believe panzanella predates tomatoes in Italy? It’s true. In fact, the first written record of an early version of panzanella (called “pan lavato,” meaning “washed bread”) came from writer Boccaccio in the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century, the poet Agnolo di Cosimo wrote an entire poem about a panzanella-like dish that called for chunks of crusty bread, onions, greens called purslane, and cucumbers. This version didn’t feature fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes because they didn’t yet exist in the Italian states. In these early dishes, onions played the dominant role.
Then came the tomato plant from South America to Europe, by way of the Spanish, irrevocably changing Italian cuisine forever. October 31st, 1548 marked the first record of tomatoes in the Italian states, yet it would take two hundred years for their quantity and popularity to grow. Tomatoes actually had a rough start in Europe, as they were incorrectly described as poisonous in John Gerard’s 1597 book, Herball, or General Historie of Plants. For a time, they remained as purely decorative plants in English households. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that tomatoes became the main ingredient of panzanella, bringing sweetness, brightness, and acidity to a beloved dish.
A traditional recipe
Let’s talk traditional before getting into the many creative varieties of panzanella. In this recipe from Food52, chef Lindsay-Jean Hard explores making a very traditional panzanella (also called panmolle). The recipe calls for a mixture of heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, three-day old bread, mixed microgreens, fresh basil, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and cold water for reviving the stale bread.
The most traditional aspect of this recipe is that the bread isn’t toasted. In most American recipes (like the creative ones below), chefs recommend toasting the bread to avoid soggy croutons. However, the more traditional way of preparing this Italian dish with American ingredients is to wait a few more days for your bread to dry out before cutting them into cubes and sprinkling them with cold water. Ideally, the chunks of bread in panzanella should be chewy, not soggy and not crunchy.
In Tuscany, bread is made without salt (dating back to periods when it was highly taxed). The lack of salt results in bread that becomes stale quickly. You can now see why there are so many Italian dishes that call for day-old or stale bread. It’s tricky to find this kind of salt-free rustic bread in the United States, so when making your own panzanella, just give the bread a few more days. If you’re feeling extra motivated, you could try your hand at baking a traditional Tuscan loaf from scratch.
Inventive variations on panzanella
While the original is delicious, we’ve loved finding alternative panzanella recipes that include everything from bacon to plums. At your next summer party or picnic, why not try out a few and have your guests rate the traditional versus these wild cards? Here are some of our favorites:
This BLT Panzanella salad that calls for thick-cut bacon, and other new additions like spinach, boiled eggs, and blue cheese.
The tomato and stone-fruit panzanella with burrata from New York chefs Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone. The peaches and creamy burrata cheese make it feel extra summery.
Bon Appetit’s beet and rye panzanella features a different kind of bread: rye. Earthy beets, vibrant orange, and fresh herbs like dill, parsley, tarragon, and mint add depth to the entire dish.
Food and Wine’s roundup of eighteen amazing Italian salads including a panzanella recipe is a great place to start. The options are endless and will leave your mouth watering.