Panzanella with Tomato Vinaigrette

Panzanella is a centuries-old recipe that dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s the perfect combination of fresh, crisp summer vegetables, tangy vinegar, and herbaceous, grassy olive oil. It was so beloved that it was enshrined by the Florentine Renaissance painter Agnolo di Cosimo’s poem ” Il lode delle cipolle,” or “An ode to onions.” Back then, it was made without tomatoes since they hadn’t yet become a staple in Italian cuisine. Further, Italy wasn’t a republic then either, so we can’t say that he was talking about “Italian cuisine,” but I digress. Let’s focus on the recipe.

Panzanella - To toast, or not to toast? That is the question.

Historically speaking, toasting bread was unnecessary because panzanella is made from stale bread that is already hard. In modern takes, we often find instructions to toast or grill fresh bread. There’s nothing wrong with that, but IMO this extra step is fussy. The main reason I love this salad in the summer is that it doesn’t require any cooking. I don’t want to fire up a grill if I can avoid it. It should be a quick, simple dish that requires very little time or effort to prep. I mean, if you want to heat up your kitchen in July with an oven, be my guest. You do you.

Essentially, around this house, we make panzanella when we have the occasion of stale leftover bread. As in, I don’t head to the store thinking, “I need to buy all the ingredients to make toasty bread salad.” No, no, no. I make panzanella because I don’t want to go to the store or because I have extra veggies and old bread that I need to use up. 

Rustic sourdough panzanella bread

Which type of bread should I use for panzanella?

If we are sticking to traditions here, panzanella is made with “pane sciapo” or saltless bread. Saltless bread is norm in Umbria and Tuscany. However, Marco and I prefer salted bread. Our favorite is Grande Impero Grano Duro, which I’d compare to an American “rustic sourdough.” We like it to be spongy and bouncy inside, with a thick crusty exterior. Most importantly, once this type of bread becomes stale, it becomes hard as a rock so it can be dipped in water without becoming too mushy. This is great because you want it to retain a little tooth. 

What kind of veggies should I use for panzanella?

The OG recipe from the 1500s called for bread, wild greens (like purslane), red onions, and basil. I sub the wild greens for arugula, use Persian cucumbers when I can find them, and add a rainbow of tomatoes. We’re fortunate to have an incredible selection of tomatoes at the near-daily markets around Perugia. During peak season, I find it difficult to leave without overbuying them. I’m like a kid in a tomato candy store. I want all the colors and sizes. Also, there are plenty of variations and additions out there. You could add tuna, white beans, olives, capers, a few dollops of basil pesto…the list goes on. The panzanella world is your oyster.

Making tomato vinaigrette for panzanella

Soaking bread for panzanella

Fill a bowl or wide baking dish with water. Cut the bread into about 1cm thick slices. Dip the slices in the water, just for a second or two, shake off the excess, and set aside in a strainer. You don’t want it to be sopping. This bagno (bath) is quick refresher to soften, not soak. Leave the bread in the colander to absorb the water for about 30-40 minutes. 

Immersing panzanella bread in water

How long will panzanella keep?

I suggest making panzanella an hour or two before eating, which is just long enough for the flavors to meld. Storing it is not appealing for two reasons:

  1. The bread will get too soggy.
  2. You shouldn’t (ever) keep tomatoes in the fridge. It ruins the texture and makes them mealy. Ew. Stop putting tomatoes in the fridge.
That being said, if you must prep the day before, keep separate the chopped veggies, bread, and vinaigrette. Adding salt to the veggies will cause them to wilt, release water, and change the texture. Simply add the vinaigrette at when you’re ready to serve.
Panzanella served with burrata and white wine

Panzanella with Tomato Vinaigrette

Salad Ingredients

  • 7 oz. (200 grams) stale sourdough bread
  • 1 small red onion
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 cups arugula
  • 1lb (450 grams) cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 Persian cucumber
  • Handful fresh basil leaves
  • Salt to taste
  • Olivando Originale extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Tomato Vinaigrette Ingredients

 

  • 2 TBSP red wine vinegar
  • 2 TBSP traditional aged balsamic vinegar
  • 1 large or 2 small heirloom tomatoes (cuore di bue/beefsteak, cherokee purple, brandywine, etc)
  • 4-5 leaves of fresh basil, torn
  • 1/4 cup Olivando Originale extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Salt & pepper to taste
 

Instructions

  1. Start with the vinaigrette. Slice the large tomato in half. Grate on the larges holes of a box grater over a bowl. Discard peel. Add tomato pulp and juices to a small jar.
  2. To jar, add vinegars, roughly torn basil leaves, and olive oil. Smack the garlic clove on a counter top with the side of a butcher knife and the palm of your hand. Peel and add to jar. Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover jar, shake vigorously, and set aside.
  3. Slice the bread about 1cm thick. Fill a bowl or shallow baking dish with water and place a colander next to it. Immerse the bread in the water (just a second or so) and gently shake off any excess drips. Don’t leave it in the water for long – it’s a quick dip. Place the bread in a colander to continue draining. Continue with the remaining slices. Set aside to rest and soften. 
  4. While the bread is resting, for about 30-40 minutes, prep the veggies. Thinly slice the red onion and place in a small bowl of half water/half red wine vinegar to macerate, about 15 minutes.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, layer the arugula, chopped (and peeled if needed) cucumber, and halved cherry tomatoes. Toss with a few big spoonfuls of vinaigrette and a sprinkle of salt.
  6. Over the vegetables, break apart/tear/crumble the bread. You want the ratio of bread to veggies to be around half. Toss to combine. Taste and add more vinaigrette or salt to your liking. 
  7. Cover and place in the fridge for about an hour. When ready to serve, toss again, drizzle with more olive oil and enjoy
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