Foods of Italy: Italian Bread

Tuscan bread - schiacciata (Photo by Fugzu from Pistoia, Italia)

One recent Wednesday, our Tuscan father/father-in-law dropped in to our home, unannounced, in the early evening. We invited him to stay for dinner, but with a warning that we had run out of bread.

Living in a small town where all the local grocery stores and bakeries traditionally close early on Wednesdays*, it was not even possible to duck to the store. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘non c’è problema. That’s no problem.’

After serving a light starter, followed by a hearty pasta dish, I placed the main course dish on the table.

‘Ma c’è al meno un po’ di pane, no? But there is at least a little bit of bread, right?’, he asked ? the concept of ‘no bread’ meaning there was literally no bread in the house being just beyond the comprehension of an older, old-fashioned Tuscan man facing probably his first-ever meal without at least a crust of bread to accompany his main meal.

Italians love their food (as you would when it is this delicious!) and are certainly not afraid of carbs!

In fact, suggest to an Italian that they skip the pasta or eat a main without a lump of bread by their plate, is paramount to sacrilege for many!

Pane Toscano is a soft centred, crunchy crusted bread made without any salt. There are two stories about why this is. The first goes that the taxes on salt (‘sale’ ? pronounced something like sah-le) were raised, and in protest, the Tuscans made their bread without salt in a show that they would live without rather than pay the absurdly high amount.

The more likely tale is that bread was made without salt as it accompanies saucey mains that are well-salted and to then sop up the juices of a main with salty bread is just too much of a good thing, hence the bread is made sans ‘sale’. Sauce-sopping with your bread is colloquially known as ‘scarpetta’ (or, ‘little shoe’) and is not considered to be the height of good manners when fine dining.

Aside from the ‘little shoe’, there is also a kind of bread known as ‘slipper’ ? ciabatta bread, a sole-shaped breadroll that is usually served filled with delicious, traditional ham and cheese combinations.

‘Panini’ (sandwiches in general) are filled with deli meat and cheese or vegetable combinations that have been developed throughout the ages. Transgression when it comes to sandwich making is not very common for most traditional Tuscans.

You can buy sandwiches from local coffee shops (called a ‘bar’), whilst at some bakeries and deli counters in small grocery stores and even some small supermarkets will use their produce to custom build your ideal sandwich. There are also some little stores, known as a ‘paninoteca’, where they just sell freshly-made sandwiches. All the ingredients are displayed in a deli counter, and you can select the combination of ingredients to have.

The bread itself can be filled with walnut (pane di noci), olives (pane con le olive), or with grains and seeds. ‘Pane integrale’ is wholegrain bread, whilst ‘pane ai cinque cereali’ is a bread with five grains (typically barley, wheat, rice, rye and oats). Wholemeal and wholegrain breads are not so commonly found in Italy, although they are becoming more and more popular.

Foccaccia and schiacciata (which literally means, ‘squished’) are other common types of bread. Schiacciata can also be made as a sweet, when it filled and/or topped with black grapes.

Pizza bases topped with a drizzle of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt are also served as bread to accompany a meal.

Crackers are known as ‘cracker’ (pronounced in a flamboyant Italian accent for best results!) and plain, sliced white bread is confusingly known as ‘toast’. ‘Grissini’ is the name for those more-ish crunchy breadsticks.

When dining at a restaurant, a breadbasket will be a staple item on the table.

If you’d like to learn to make pizza, pasta, or other typical Tuscan dishes right here in Tuscany, we have small-group, hands-on Tuscan cooking classes. We can also arrange market tours and other food-related activites. Email us on staff@artviva.com for more details!

Here is a typical Venetian recipe from Tessa Kiros’ Venezia: food & dreams beautiful cookbook filled with delicious recipes from Venice:

Bussolai ? bread bangles

15 g fresh yeast or 1 tablespoon dried

1 teaspoon sugar

30 g margarine or butter, melted and cooled

About 500 g cake (‘00’) flour

1 teaspoon salt

These are bread sticks in teh shape of oval bangles ? you’ll find them served in the bread baskets all over Venice, much like grissini. You have to roll these thin or they will puff up like thin  bread rolls in parts, although even if that happens it’s no disaster. If you prefer, just roll the dought into  rolls and bake ? you’ll get a wonderful plain, light white bread, much like the soft Venetian bread that, at first, I didn’t like but do now. It’s great for mopping up all the sauces at the bottom of your plate.

-Crumble the fresh (or sprinkle the dried) yeast into a bowl and add the sugar, margarine or butter, 100 g of the flour and 250 mo of lukewarm water and whisk together. Leave for about 10 minutes until the yeast starts to activate and bubble up a bit. Add the salt and all but 50 g of the flour (you may not need to use it).

– Mix it all together (start with a wooden spoon and then use your hands), adding a little extra flour to the dough and your hands if necessary, to get a nice soft ball. Knead for about 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Make a cross on top of the ball of dough, put back into the bowl, then cover the bowl with a cloth and leave in a draught-free warm place for a couple of hours until it has puffed up well and doubled in size. Line 2 or 3 baking trays with baking paper.

– Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Divide the dough into about 34 equal pieces or use your scales to measure each piece to 20 g. Using unfloured hands, roll each piece on a smooth surface to a thin rope 25-30 cm long, then press the ends together to make an oval ‘bracelet’. Lft onto the baking trays.

– Bake for 15 about minutes until crisp and lightly browned. Best eaten fresh but you can store them in an airtight container or bag for 1-2 weeks.

Makes about 34.

Tessa Kiros was a special guest at a recent Artviva festival, which you can read about on the following link:

If you’re visiting Italy, we’d love to help you visit the must-see places (and a few extras while you’re at it)! We have tours in Rome, Venice, Florence/Tuscany and beyond. For more information on our private tours in Italy, you can also email us via staff@artviva.com. You can also call us on Italian number, 0039 055 264 5033.

* We asked why all the stores are closed on Wednesday afternoons (and Sundays, and some on Monday mornings too!), the store owner shrugged and said in a tone that communicated that she thought we were asking an obvious question, ‘Because it is tradition to close on Wednesday afternoons!’ This is a lovely, typical answer to how/why many things are done in Tuscany and Italy in general!

About Artviva Tours, Italy

We love Italy and we’re here to share with you some tidbits from life in the Bel Paese – be it about the food, art, history, culture or some of the fun things going on that make up the mass of reasons why this truly is Bella Italia. You don’t just have to read about it though. You can live it with us too! We offer outstanding experiences in Florence, Venice, Rome, Cinque Terre and beyond. You can check out www.artviva.com to read more about our Italy tours including: Florence Tours, Tuscany Tours, Rome Tours, Venice Tours, Cinque Terre Tours, Umbria Tours, Naples Tours, Pompeii Tours and more.
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