For a number of European and even world travelers, no region rhymes with summer more than the Tuscan region, and this is where I am taking you again today.
After panzanella that I shared with you earlier this week, I am preparing another Tuscan recipe made with stale or leftover bread.
Pappa al pomodoro (or pappa col pomodoro) is a thick soup prepared with fresh tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic and basil from the Siena area. It can be served hot, tepid, or chilled like a Spanish gazpacho.
Like most traditional recipes from the region, it is the very high quality of the ingredients that make or break a simple dish like pappa al pomodoro, starting the tomatoes.
To make a true authentic pappa al pomodoro, a particular kind of tomatoes is required. The variety is called costoluto fiorentino. They are a distinct flattened, heavily-ribbed shape of various Italian heirlooms. Obviously, it is not always easy to find this variety even in Italy.
If you want to stay authentic, you can use San Marzano tomatoes, which are what most Italians use.
In the United States, you can find canned San Marzano tomatoes in specialty grocery stores. San Marzano tomato is a variety of plum tomato, considered by many chefs to be the best of its kind in the world. A good alternative if yo want to use fresh tomatoes is to use Roma tomatoes. Roma tomato is a cross between a San Marzano and two other tomato varieties.
For the less purists, any tomato would do as long as it is very ripe and full of flavor. I would recommend fresh tomatoes in the summer but canned tomatoes if you’re making this recipe in the winter.
Another key ingredient is Tuscan bread. As in the panzanella recipe, this bread is used as one of the key ingredient. This bread is also called pane sciocco or bread without salt and there is a historical reason behind it.
The recipe of this bread dates back to the 12th century, when the rulers of Pisa were at odds with the rulers of Florence. They cut off their supply lines from the coast, which made salt prohibitively expensive. The Florentines, unwilling to cave to the pressure, started making their bread without salt. Pane toscano (Tuscan bread) was born.
If you are brave enough, you can make your own Tuscan bread. However, a good ciabatta or other thick crust white bread will do, as long as it is a couple days old. If you only have fresh bread, you can dry it in the oven, as I indicate in the recipe.
Pappa al pomodoro has ancient origins, although it was largely popularized by the 1911 publication of Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca and two film adaptations in 1943 and in 1982. But it is the popular RAI television series, in which Rita Pavone sang the famous song Viva la pappa col pomodoro that made the dish popular outside of Italy.
The song, which was released in 1965, was an instant hit! I have to say it’s been in my head for the past couple days, so I don’t recommend you watch the video!
Viva la pappappappa col popopopopopopomodoro
Like any old traditional recipe, especially this one which also comes from cucina povera (peasant cooking), there are as many ways to make pappa al pomodoro as there are families in Tuscany. Some use finely chopped leek or carrot (like Tuscan food blogger Giulia Scarpaleggia), some add a few whole cloves, other add catmint (like in San Vincenzo) some use canned tomato, pureed tomato or fresh tomato, but there are also different techniques used for making this dish which Tuscans could argue about for days, such as whether to cook the bread or not.
I personally used San Marzano canned tomatoes imported from Italy as well as high quality vegetable broth for my pappa al pomodoro. I also cooked the bread instead of adding it off the heat.
Although most people call pappa al pomodoro a soup, it is really more of a porridge. The Italian word pappa actually translates to mush, or baby food, but I guess it would be a hard sell to call it as such outside of Italy.
I prepared pappa al pomodoro for an al fresco dinner with our friends Manu and Elodie a couple weeks ago. We all enjoyed this dish warm with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh basil… and good wine of course! A very international dinner indeed as I served my Colombian carimanolas de carne as the main dish.
- 2 lb tomatoes (or high quality canned tomatoes)
- ¾ lb stale Tuscan bread , sliced
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 bunch basil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Fresh ground black pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil (to taste)
- Bring water to a boil in a large pot.
- Turn tomatoes over and cut two small shallow incisions cross shape.
- Boil tomatoes for 4 minutes.
- Remove, let cool then peel.
- Place slices on baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake at 300 F / 150 C for 10 minutes, turning over the slices after 5 minutes.
- Let cool.
- Rub slices with garlic.
- Place the slices of bread in a large pan.
- Pour in the tomatoes and the vegetable stock so that the slices of bread are totally covered.
- Add the sugar and cook over low heat for 40 to 50 minutes, until the liquid is fully evaporated.
- Stir occasionally to allow even cooking and to help the bread break down and absorb the liquid.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Remove from the heat.
- Serve in individual bowls and pour olive oil to taste. Garnish with basil leaves.