Eating In Tuscany: Panzanella

A Tuscan Specialty:  Bread And Tomato Salad

Rustic dishes often withstand the test of time — usually because they are easy, make use of local ingredients, and they’re good.   Recipes for the same dish are usually not identical – they are adjusted for the hand that makes them and the tongues that eat them — but they consistently have at least one common central ingredient.  They are dishes that are usually the result of necessity – the local crop, hard winters, what the land and surrounding environment yield, how they stand up to cooking and/or lack of refrigeration.  In most cases they are peasant dishes:  frugal, hearty, and delicious.

Panzanella is a bread and tomato salad (with some other ingredients) that is popular in Tuscany, other regions of Italy, and other parts of the world where the main ingredients:  crusty bread, tomatoes, olive oil, onions, basil – are commonplace.  Typically, the bread is two day to a week old unsalted Tuscan bread – originally, and still, a great way to make use of hard-as-a-rock leftover bread and extra tomatoes, with very tasty results.

In The Bar-Ucci Kitchen With Paola

When I was standing in the little café near our rented villa in Tuscany, I started up an interesting mixed Italian/English conversation with, Paola, the very amiable café owner of Bar-Ucci, the café/wine bar in the village square.  She speaks Italian, I speak English, and much to my surprise, I found myself thinking in Greek (still don’t have an explanation for that).  She being Italian, and me, Greek, it is safe to say that a whole lot of communication was through waving of the hands and facial expression.  We understood each other with no problem.

She invited me into the tiny kitchen behind the café to watch the morning preparation of Panzanella.

Some Leftover Crusty Bread, Ripe Tomatoes, Luscious Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Bright Green Basil, Onions, And A Few More Ingredients . . .

Even though Panzanella is a very rustic dish, it is essential that all of the ingredients be of the best quality. The bread is stale, but if it is supermarket, spongy, and pale, it ends up as a soggy and yucky mess. Lacking access to unsalted Tuscan loaves you can use any good quality crusty loaf. I happen to love olives in any way shape or form, so I’m itching to try combining kalamata olive bread mixed with another crusty variety.

Use the ripest, juiciest tomatoes, the freshest basil, and the best quality extra virgin olive oil available. As with the farro salad I have already written about, Paola, with waving hands punctuating her point, emphasized that extra virgin olive oil was the most important ingredient.  Easy to say when you live surrounded by olive trees with a gigantic olive press housed in a medieval stone building just across the square.  To her, the fabulous bread, vine ripened tomatoes, and awesome bright green basil are not luxury foods – they’re simply the components of breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The only thing that I found really different, and that I don’t love (because I go for crunchy and chewy), is that she soaked her bread in water first, squeezed out any excess drop she could, discarded the center, then tore the crust into pieces. Other recipes just use torn stale bread, without soaking, or even oven toasted bread or torn bread pan fried in olive oil.

You Can Make It A Dinner Salad, Too

Panzanella is totally accepting of a whole array of extra ingredients. With the addition of some protein, it can be a fantastic summer dinner salad.

I have made panzanella before, and I love to add tuna and some crumbled blue cheese or feta along with tomatoes and basil from my garden.  For anyone looking for a way to use up the end of season overflow of tomatoes, this is an ideal way to do it.

Some people also add hard boiled eggs, celery, anchovies, hard cheese, and capers, to name a few possibilities.  As long as you stick to the basics of bread, tomatoes, onion, basil, salt, vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil, add whatever you like (you can even leave out the onions if you want – although I personally consider that heresy!).  It’ll taste great and on top of it all, be a healthy, nutritious meal.

Paola’s Panzanella:  No measurements, just eyeballed

  • Crusty bread soaked in water
  • Chopped,cored, seeded tomatoes
  • Cucumber, halved, sliced, seeded
  • Thinly sliced red onion
  • Basil, torn into pieces
  • Salt, pepper, wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil

Remove bread from water, discard inside, squeeze out as much water as possible, tear crust into pieces and put in a big bowl

Add tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions to taste

Add salt, pepper, oil to taste

Refrigerate for one hour

Adjust seasonings, if necessary, before serving

Heap into a serving bowl or on a plate and garnish with basil leaves

Check out other Panzanella recipes at:


Alton Brown, Good Eats, Food Network

Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa, Food Network

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One Response to Eating In Tuscany: Panzanella

  1. Elatia Harris June 25, 2010 at 1:24 am #

    Woof! I’m dieting and whimpering at 2 a.m. as I read this… But there’s nothing bad for you in it, really. REALLY! I could go whimper in the kitchen… Thanks!

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