One would think that stale bread is relatively commonplace in the United States where we buy entire loaves of bread. When you go to the panetteria (bakery) in Italy, however, it isn’t obligatory to buy an entire leaf. You can indicate the quantity you want and even the part of the loaf you prefer, from the crusty heel to softer, middle section. You pay by the weight.
According to La cucina povera (poor kitchen), which probably originated in Italy in the late 1800s and continued in post-war impoverished eras, it was considered sacrilegious to throw away even a single slice of bread. Hence, many stale bread recipes, particularly soups, sprung up throughout Italy. La cucina povera…pass the baton to today’s anti-waste food movement and to chefs like Massimo Bottura!
Because some of the stale bread dishes below originated in Tuscany, a word here about Tuscan bread. Sometimes called sciocco (silly), Tuscan bread is made without salt. There are several stories behind this tradition. Perhaps the most colorful stems from the historic rivalry between Florence and Pisa. During one of their feuds, so the story goes, the Pisan army set up a blockade on the Arno River to prevent salt shipments from reaching Florence. Another version links the custom to the excessive cost of salt in the Middle Ages. In either case, undaunted Florentine bakers kept on baking… they just left out the salt.
While you don’t have to use Tuscan bread for the following dishes, a good crusty, rustic, perhaps homemade, bread produces the best results. The same quality goes for the rest of the ingredients—extra virgin olive oil in all, and fresh beautiful tomatoes in many.
For a dish like Pancotto, a Tuscan bread soup, there is probably a different recipe in every household. You can pare back for more simplicity, or add a few extras for more oomph. You can use vegetable stock instead of water, garlic to taste, add chili pepper and broccoli rabe, or perhaps add chopped pancetta with a soffritto of carrot, celery, and onion. The important thing is the crusty bread.
Americans like but don’t always make Bruschetta very well. What is most appealing to me is the contrast of consistency from the initial crispiness of the first bite, to the juicy pulp of the tomato, to the soft texture of the inside of the bread. Advice? Cut the bread about an inch thick, run it under the broiler, and then paint it with olive oil so that the surface provides a barrier that allows the tomato juices to penetrate only slightly.
Americans might call Crostini alla Romana the Italian version of breakfast French toast. It is made with stale bread soaked in milk, pan fried, and then topped with mozzarella and anchovy. Returning to Tuscany, Ribollita (which means re-boiled) is a colorful soup loaded with vegetables, beans, and stale bread to make it nice and thick. Panzanella is a bread salad packed with greens, cucumber, tomatoes, red onions, and basil–the glorious colors of Italy.
Of course, there are countless versions of all of these dishes depending on where you live and the recipes handed down over the generations. Perhaps the queen of all the stale bread recipes is Pappa al Pomodoro. The recipe probably dates back to the end of the 19th century when tomatoes became an ingredient for sauces and dishes in Italy. Pappa means mush or baby food in Italian, which describes the consistency of the end product. It can be eaten hot, lukewarm or cold. And it is simple—stale Tuscan bread, tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, and salt and pepper – but glorious if the ingredients are top quality. It is said to have originated in Siena, but if you ask any Tuscan, there are probably secret touches. In Arezzo, this dish is prepared using onion instead of garlic, and other recipes call for both.
Perhaps everyone can agree—serve it with a generous drizzle of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil for added flavor.