In previous articles for the Journal I talked about my mother through her recipes. There is more to come from that quarter, but today I would like to introduce you to my father. He was born in the small village of Poggio Catino, located less than 40 miles north of Rome in a region called Sabina, rich in vineyards and olive groves. The Latin poet Horace — of carpe diem (“seize the day”) fame — had a villa in Sabina, received as a gift from his patron, Maecenas, and he referred to the region and its attractions in his poems. My father does not own a villa, only a portion of the house where he grew up, located in the heart of the old village.
My father is not a cook, but he knows how to make panzanella. There are many variations of this traditional dish, but I like my father’s recipe the best. Panzanella is fundamentally a way of dressing up stale bread. In the olden days bread was baked once a week, so stale bread was an inescapable reality of life that people accepted and responded to in creative ways.
During my childhood, every year my family spent three weeks in August in Poggio Catino. Oftentimes, early in the morning, my dad and I went for a hike on the wooded hills surrounding the village (called Monti Sabini) and we carried with us the ingredients to prepare panzanella at one of the springs that graced the ancient woods. First of all, we brought bread that was at least one day old. Since bread in this country comes in many flavors, I need to specify that we used plain bread: no walnuts, no garlic, no anything. The loaf was neither sliced, nor otherwise manipulated before being sold. In Italy, plain bread comes in endless variations, mostly dependent on the local tradition. The bread we ate was called pane casareccio (“homemade-like”) and had a dark, almost black, crust. This was as close as we could get to my grandmother’s homemade bread, which is the ingredient my father used when he first started to make panzanella in his youth. Besides bread, we brought some tasty tomatoes — ripe, but not too soft. More often than not we had picked the tomatoes ourselves at one of the farms we visited regularly to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. A few leaves of fresh homegrown basil, some salt, a small bottle with olive oil and an even smaller one with vinegar completed the list of provisions.
My father always brought the tail end of the loaf: He cut a slice or two for me and then cut the rest horizontally for himself. He removed some of the soft part from his portion, then picked up one piece at a time and placed it under the thin stream of cold spring water. He turned it so that the whole surface would get wet, then squeezed the bread gently to drain the excess water. It was important to work fast enough to avoid soaking the bread, which would have caused it to fall apart into a soggy mess. My father moistened my bread too, since, according to him, I would not know how to do it properly.
Only at this point was I allowed to participate in what constituted for my father a sort of ritual. I washed the tomatoes and cut them in half. I then used half a tomato at a time to brush my portion of bread. The brushing motion was accompanied by a squeezing of the tomato, so that the juice released was absorbed by the moistened bread. When I was left with a juiceless tomato half, I cut it into bite-size pieces and spread them over the brushed bread. I used as many tomato halves as I needed to impregnate my portion of bread with tomato juice and cover it with tomato pieces. The number of tomatoes consumed depended on their size and on the amount of bread. My father followed the exact same procedure with his portion of bread, but he sprinkled some salt over his tomatoes, while I preferred mine without salt.
I shredded a few basil leaves over the tomato pieces and finally seasoned the dish with a thread of olive oil and “a suspicion of vinegar” (borrowing a befitting expression from Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri). The vinegar that had (and still has) currency in my family’s household was homemade and extremely strong, so a light hand was necessary in sprinkling it. Using the more nuanced balsamic vinegar allows the suspicion to become somewhat more substantial. It is important not to overdo with either the oil or the vinegar: All flavors involved in this dish are delicate and you don’t want any one of them to be overpowering.
At this point our breakfast was ready. Both the preparation and the partaking of panzanella occurred in a rather rugged fashion: The bread knife was our only tool and, in the absence of plates, the rocks surrounding the spring were our working surface. This is the reason why we really didn’t want the bread to fall apart: A correct preparation, according to my father’s script, allowed us to eat panzanella sans plates and without major spills or breakdowns, enjoying the subtle pleasure we derived from getting a bit messy and from licking our fingers at the end. The requirement loses importance in the presence of plates, which is usually the case for me now when I make panzanella at home for a rustic lunch recalling flavors from my childhood. Still, I cannot contemplate eating panzanella with anything other than my hands.
Panzanella appears to be older than the arrival of tomatoes to Italy from America, so it is not surprising that there are many variations of the dish that use vegetables like arugula and cucumbers and additional seasoning, like minced onions and black pepper. Also, some people prefer panzanella without vinegar. In some versions of the recipe, the soaked bread is broken into pieces, requiring a bowl and the appropriate implements.
Panzanella is an important dish for Poggio Catino. When I was a teenager, the first yearly Sagra della Panzanella (festival) was organized there, and for the occasion I dressed up as a young Sabine peasant and helped serve the hungry crowd. A Google search for Sagra della Panzanella reveals occurrences of such an event in towns around central Italy, a testament to the undying popularity of the dish.
However, a trip to Italy is not necessary to taste panzanella: A little advance planning is all that is needed. Buy or bake some rustic bread and set a piece aside for a day or two. Pick some juicy tomatoes in your garden (oh, how I envy you!) or purchase them at the farmers’ market (maybe of different colors, for a nice decorative touch). Finally, get some fresh basil, possibly from plants in your herb garden or in a pot, but again available at market. These ingredients will allow you to prepare and enjoy some hearty panzanella à la my father without leaving home.
Even if you have not yet received a villa in the Italian countryside as a gift from a wealthy patron, life is good, so seize the day!