We Americans think of Italian bread as those long spongy breads used for hoagies, heros, subs, grinders, Blimpies or Po' Boys. Italian bread is much more than that. In fact I'd argue that most of that ilk are nothing more than commercial white bread recipes--no crust or leathery crust, tiny air pockets, little crumb and they compress into a Communion wafer when squeezed between your fingers.
But out of the forni d'Italiani (Italian ovens) come real breads--Italian breads... over 350 types. Many are regional breads, rarely seen outside of a specific region--or even a particular town--in Italy. Others are more widespread. Still others have specific reasons to exist... religious, utilitarian or for celebration. Baking in Italy was often a communal affair. The harvest would bring in the wheat. The growers would come together at the miller for him to grind their grain. The small villages had communal ovens where all the bread was baked, sometimes by the women of the village, sometimes by a well known baker. The bear was then doled out depending on how much grain you gave, or based on what other bartering or services you shared with other neighbors.
Below are descriptions of some of the best breads in Italy. You will notice that many are from Puglia, or Apulia (in Italian)--Italy’s boot heel. Puglia produces a tenth of all wine drunk in Europe, and 18% of all Italian wines. Its olive oil is prized as well, no wonder when you drive past the largest stands of olive trees in the whole country--some looking like forests--with many over 1000 years old. A little known fact is that Puglia is the "breadbasket of Italy" producing tremendous amounts of wheat. From all this wheat comes amazing artisinal breads...
Ciabatta is wheat flour, water, salt, olive oil and yeast, and has a salty flavor and meaty texture. But it is not a bread with much Italian heritage behind it--because it was first invented in 1982 by a baker in Adria, Veneto. It's success has become worldwide. That's not a bad thing, because most supermarkets have fairly decent ciabatta breads nowadays.
Firstly, a cornetto is NOT a croissant. A French croissant is a pastry, made with layers of pastry dough and butter... the excaping steam creates fluffy layers. A Cornetto is really more like a bread it's made with lard and has a more breay-like texture, similar to brioche, and contains more sugar. It's use is widespread throughout Italy as a mainstay of the Italian breakfast. Varieties include chocolate (Nutella), jam and plain.
Basically, this is a foccacia, but only in Rome is it called pizza bianca in Rome and of course the way that it is made and the way that it tastes is different in every region. Bakers will often offer small pieces to children while their parents are buying bread. It is wonderful on its own and can also be filled or farcita and made into a sandwich.
Pane casareccia is made with made with triple 0 flour, not whole wheat as many other breads use. It has less air inside, is meatier and softer, but has a solid crust. Essentially, this is Italian white bread. Nice for slicing.
Grissini come in several forms. First there is the type we know in the States--a pencil thin, cracker dry stick. Then there are thicker, breadier versions with a crusty outside but softer interior. There are versions that are hand rolled and can be as thick as a finger or as fat as a sausage. They can be twisted into spirals or made up to 3 feet long. Often they are flavored with herbs, cheese or even prosciutto. They were invented in the 1600s, supposed to cure a Duke of stomach ailments.
In Sicily this gold colored bread is made with semolina flour and sesame seeds on top. It has a sweet flavor. There is a traditional S-shaped version but it also can be found in boule (ball) or loaf shapes. Whenever you see an Italian bread in a deli with sesame seeds on top, you can be sure it's grandfather loaf came from Sicily.
Pane di Genzano
Genzano is a town just south-east of Rome in Lazio which is well known for this giant of Italian breads. There are 12 panifico (bread bakeries) within a 1 mile zone that make variations of Pane di Genzano, which has a D.O.P designation. The typical style is a large country roung that weighs a whopping 8 pounds! You can buy just what you need... by the pound. In fact, I should mention that many bakeries and alimentary will sell you bread by the pound. This bread can have a very thick 1/4" crust and comes from a sourdough "mother" dough (in Italian, Biga Naturale) that is covered with bran on the outside.
This was my favorite bread in Italy, perhaps partly because of it's story--it can last for up to a month without going stale and has been made in Puglia for 2000 years. The chef's hat shaped Pane di Altamura has D.O.P. designation (Protected Designation of Origin) and cannot be made anywhere other than Altamura (the City of Bread). Historically, local families would prepare their raw loaves of bread at home, then take it to a public oven. The baker would used a wooden stamp to mark each family's loaves. The distinctive shaped bread weighs about 2 pounds.
This X-shaped bread from Ferrara is made from soft wheat flour, by knotting and twisting two long pieces of dough together. The long pointed parts should be eaten as soon as possible, while the center of the X sill stay fresh for another two days. An historic bread, Coppia Ferrarese has been made since the 1500s.
Pagnotta del Dittaino
Pagnotta del Dittaino DOP is a golden colored, durum wheat bread made in Sicily. These round loaves are dense crumb inside with a with a tough yet thin crust. It is made exclusively with locally harvested grain and keeps its scent, taste and freshness up to a week. This is a great bread for bruschetta.
Friselle are a type of bread biscotti (twice baked) from Puglia. The small breads are baked halfway and then taken out of the oven, split in half, and baked again until hard and dry. One side is rough, the other smooth. Some bakers put a thumb hole in the middle resulting in a bread that looks very much like a half of a bagel or biali. This bread is more like a cracker in texture, and will last for very long times. It would be taken out by shepherds, farmers and fishermen to have with their meals. They are often soaked in water or drizzled with olive oil and tomatoes as a simple meal or snack. They can also be broken up and used in soups or stews. You will see packaged friselle sold in alimentari and supermarkets all over Italy.
Borlengo is a very thin, crepe-like bread that is found in several areas of Italy; Modena near Bologna. It is a bread of the cucina povera (poor kitchen) made with just water and flour, then cooked on a large heavy brass pan, similar to a paella pan. Some say it was invented out of necessity during a siege of Montevallaro Castle in the 1200s. The people made focaccia to start with, but as supplies got low their focaccia got thinner and thinner resulting in the borlengo. This was their prank (or burla, in Italian) in surviving the siege. Today, some borlengo have yeast and are served folded in quarters and filled with various ingredients, both savory and sweet.
In the north, the Genovese and Ligurians are known for being the best focaccia bakers in Italy. There is some wheat flour in this bread making it meatier and crustier than others. You will see it plain brushed with olive oil or with rosemary or oregano, onion and olives or other toppings such as prosciutto or cherry tomatoes. Although you will see supermarket quality focaccia in Italy, you will also be able to find local bakers offering the real deal.
This beautifully decorated Sicilian bread was traditionally made at home by women of a village, then taken to communal wood fired ovens to bake. It uses semolina flour and a mother dough from the previous week to add to the complex sourdough flavors. The Mother Dough is essentially a leavening mixture containing yeast, of course, but also the complex lactic acid bacteria from perhaps hundreds of years ago. Basically, a bit of the Mother Dough is saved each week and some of it used in the next bath of bread.... and so on, year after year after year. This develops a complex, sour flavor (I'm not a fan) and guarantees the flavor's heritage remains intact. The odd pattern of sliced in the uncooked dough helps the crust to bake well.
Taralli are Pugliese pretzels. The small size tarelli are bagged (the commercial variety) and the larger size (about bagel size) are created in artisinal bakeries all through the South of Italy. In their basic form they have the texture of a packaged breadstick or pretzel, and like a bagel, are boiled before baking. They can be topped with salt, spices, poppy seeds, onion or garlic. I ate the sweet type as a child with a sugar glaze (some had sprinkles) but even with the sugar, they were very dry for my taste. In the south, people dunk, and you may see someone dunking their tarelle in wine. We bought some of the packaged ones in Puglia, but none of us liked them... way too plain and dry.
Similar to the Tarelli, the Bossolà is a much larger ring shaped bread (from 4-6 inches) that will last for a very long time. You can find them in bakeries and packaged in alimentari.
Pane con l'Olive
In Puglia this bread is usually made in the shape of a small sandwich bread and is eaten as such. It can also be made in various shapes and the olives can be black or green from various types of olives. Popular even in the U.S. with Italian bakers, this Pugliese classic bread has spread throughout the world.
A Pucce is a round sandwich from the Puglia region which is stuffed with vegetables, meats, shrimp, or cheese. This bread is popular in in Salento and Taranto . In Foggia is called papòsc. Puccia caddhipulina is another type enjoyed in Gallipoli on December 7, the eve the Immaculate Conception. It contains capers and anchovies or tuna, tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil. There are even pizzerias in Puglia dedicated to the puccia with the more populars ones containing olives. In Salento during the Festival Te La Uliata, there is a competition where people eat puccia and see who can spit the black olives furthest. Similar to the pita which originated in Greece, it's no wonder that the puccia is made in Puglia where the ancient Greeks once ruled.
This pane rustica is hard crust bread with a soft center. It is typically found in central Italy and can be made quite large--about 2 kilos (4 pounds)--or rolled into small round rolls. Many add whole wheat flour or corn meal to add more texture. These breads can serves as soup bowls.
This is an amazing little bread because of the technique used to give its special quality--it's hollow inside, with a brittle crust outside and is stamped with a rose pattern. Typically used for sandwiches and fillings, the Rosetta Romana is said to have been invented by Count Guariniello, an nobleman who designed many other recipes. The Rosetta Romana's big bubble inside is formed by flattening and folding the dough several times to create a dough that will bubble up with air when baked, similar to a pita bread. It has a sweet taste from the use of malt and the caramel sugar on the crust. The rosette should be eaten very close to fresh baked.
The first time we had Tuscan bread we blamed it on the fact that we bought it from a Co-Op supermarket in Montepulciano on the way to our first agriturismo in Tuscany. It was dry, tasteless and went stale the next day. But then we started to realize that this tasteless bread WAS the famous Tuscan bread that we thought we were going to fall in love with. Why is it so tasteless and bland? No salt.
For half a millennium (perhaps longer) Tuscans have been making their bread without salt. If you compare it with something like a ciabatta or even a nice French baguette, the difference is shocking. Some say the reason is the Tuscan food is spicier, thus doesn't need salt in the bread. The more likely reason is that in the 1400s when Pisa and Florence were rivals, Pisa (which was a sea port) had access to salt and blockaded it from Florence. Rather than succumb, Florentines basically said "screw you" and made their bread anyway--without salt. Tuscans have become very proud of their bland bread, but to be honest, even they drizzle it with olive oil and herbs AND salt just to add flavor.
And there you have it, my research on the breads of Italy. The next time you go to your baker, see if he has anything authentic, or in the least, bring home some ciabiatti from the supermarket... remember, they freeze well. All you need to do is put them in foil in a 325 degree a half hour before dinner.
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