Panzanella: Italy’s recipe for repurposing stale bread

Edible Cleveland photo editor Laura Watilo Blake is spending the COVID-19 lockdown revisiting global destinations via recipes she’s picked up on her travels. In this post, take a bite of Italy’s rural food traditions with this recipe for panzanella.

Fresh soft, doughy bread is heaven, but I find it hard to eat an entire loaf before it goes bad. Give stale bread new life with a simple recipe for panzanella handed down through the years in Carlo Spada’s Italian family. The simple dish incorporates fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and a pinch of salt.

“It’s so simple,” says Spada, “but it’s part of a tradition that’s been handed down to us generation after generation.”

After a career in food marketing for a multinational brand, Spada left Rome to open a guesthouse in his ancestral village of Pico, Italy, located an hour south of the capital city. Now, the guests at Nenà al Borgo Castello are treated to delicious dishes that his grandmother once made for him when he was a boy.

Carlo Spada of Nenà al Borgo Castello. Photo by Laura Watilo Blake

“All the foods we eat are related to the what the farmers have produced here since peasant times,” says Spada. “Most of the recipes we make here are the same as the ones they cooked centuries ago.”

In addition to lodging, Spada offers local food tours and cooking classes in his kitchen, located in an ancient Roman vault built into the town’s ancient walls. When he was renovating the home, Spada even discovered a hidden tunnel that leads to the castle at the top of the peak for which Pico was named. It’s an inspiring setting to learn Italian cooking and food traditions, perfect to bookmark for when the COVID-19 outbreak subsides.

A Roman vault turned into a modern kitchen at Nenà al Borgo Castello.

Nenà al Borgo Castello’s kitchen is located within an ancient Roman vault built in the Pico’s ancient stone walls. Photo by Laura Watilo Blake

I touched base with Spada in March while Italy was under lockdown to see how things were going in his small town. “Here in Pico, the situation is under control—no danger at this point,” he says. “I’m now in my country house with my olive trees. We can’t move from here, but the weather is wonderful, fortunately.”

While we wait for travel restriction to lift, here’s his delicious recipe for panzanella that you can easily make at home.

Stale bread can be revitalized with cold water and the fresh flavors of tomato and basil.

Stale bread can be revitalized with cold water and the fresh flavors of tomato and basil. Photo by Laura Watilo Blake

Serves 4

  • 4 slices stale bread
  • 4 cups chopped tomatoes 
  • 6-10 leaves chopped fresh basil
  • 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of salt
  • Optional: slices red onions, fresh mozzarella, other veggies, balsamic vinegar
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees
  2. Fill a bowl with water and dip stale bread in the bowl.
  3. Gently squeeze excess water and place bread on a sheet pan.
  4. Bake bread for 5-7 minutes.
  5. Remove steamy bread from the oven and drizzle with half of the olive oil
  6. Pile pieces of bread high with tomatoes, basil and salt, then drizzle with remaining oil.

Note: There are tons of recipes online in which panzanella is served more like a salad. Spada’s version looks more like bruschetta.

Related video: The Olive Harvest with Carlo Spada in Pico, Italy