Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Ode to Pane

Mangio il pane tutti i giorni per la colazione, poi per il pranzo, e poi ancora una volta alla cena. (I eat bread every day for breakfast, then for lunch, and then again at dinner.)

Perché no? (Why not?)

The bread in Italy, while perhaps not as world-famous as French bread, is not only excellent, but also central, I would argue, to the culture. In nearly every neighborhood I've traveled to in Florence in the past three months, I have found a panificio (bakery) or forno (literally, "oven"). Indeed, bread, the sustenance of both the poor and the wealthy, is central to Italian cuisine and an integral part of everyday life in this country.

Lest you think I'm speaking of Italian bread (that wrongly-named, Wonder Bread-esque stuff found in the States), allow me to elaborate. As with most of Italian food, each region has its own specialty when it comes to bread - Liguria has its focaccia, Puglia, pane pugliese, and Tuscany, pane toscano (not to mention schiaciatta, but I'll save that for another post).

Pane toscano's biggest claim to fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view) is that it is unsalted. It is a somewhat dry, dense bread with a pale crust, quite unlike a crisp, airy baguette or a chewy, mildly piquant sourdough boule.

Pane toscano

The first time I ever ate pane toscana was not in Italy but in fact in New York, at a restaurant in Brooklyn called Locanda Vini e Olii. The chef, as I remember reading in Edible Brooklyn, is from Florence. Hence, she serves classic pane toscana with salsa verde, a green sauce which is not at all spicy and made mostly from parsley. While I had an otherwise very pleasant and memorable meal at Locanda, I was thoroughly disappointed by the bread, because it was not what I was expecting. Just over one month later, I arrived in Tuscany, but this time I was prepared for my second encounter with the region's eponymous bread.

Here in Florence, I eat pane toscana every night at dinner (unless we have pizza, as we did tonight, which I will also save for a different post). Granted, it took some getting used to, but I've now come to savor it. The bread's mild yet earthy, slightly sweet flavor is perfect for scooping up errant pieces of pasta and for sopping up the salty sauce and olive oil invariably left behind after I've polished off my primi and secondi.

Pane toscana at dinner (alongside cod in a spicy tomato-olive sauce and broccoli slowly cooked with olive oil and peperoncino)

Lunch, which is a simple affair for me, also usually involves bread. I will admit I sometimes buy a quarter-loaf of crusty, chewy, and pleasingly salty pane pugliese from the local panificio instead of pane toscano, but pane toscano integrale (whole-grain) also makes a very good sandwich.

Pane pugliese with wild boar salami, provolone, and a nearly-perfect tomato

Pane integrale with sharp pecorino and tomatoes

Today, as I munched a truly-Tuscan sandwich of salame toscano and pane toscano, I realized how much I will miss being able to buy high-quality bread once I return to the States at the end of December. When I told my family this tonight at dinner, I joked that they would have to ship me loaves of bread. Then, in all seriousness, I said that the next best thing would be to learn to make it myself. I'll let you know how it goes.

For more reading on Tuscan bread, check out this informative article from the New York Times.


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