Pappa al pomodoro is the hallmark of traditional Tuscan home cooking. It was invented to use up ingredients that would otherwise have gone to waste, such as stale bread, placing emphasis on seasonal fare in a straightforward recipe that calls for a generous dash of the finest Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil.
What makes pappa al pomodoro a flagbearer of Tuscan cooking is its chameleon-like nature: the recipe varies from area to area, from family to family, sparking debate and disagreement, as is always the case when typical Tuscan town rivalries are provoked.
Ingredients in pappa al pomodoro
There are three main ingredients shared by all takes on pappa al pomodoro.
The recipe begins with stale bread; traditional Tuscan bread is a must. The lack of salt is what makes Tuscan bread suitable for pappa al pomodoro, like other typical Tuscan recipes that recycle day-old bread, such as panzanella. The bread goes stale quickly, losing its freshness without becoming mouldy. When the bread is soaked in water, it swells like a sponge; when you squeeze it, the bread crumbles back into life as pieces that are soft and light.
The other key ingredient is extra-virgin olive oil, which enhances the flavour of the pappa al pomodoro. Lastly, tomatoes. Whether they are just picked, peeled and canned or as puree, tomatoes are necessary in pappa al pomodoro.
Pappa al pomodoro from Siena and Florence
The first pappa al pomodoro I ate was the typical version from around Siena; it’s the one my grandmother always made when I was little. Pale in colour, made using little pieces of fresh tomatoes, soaked bread, oil and a few basil leaves. The fresh tomato makes it a typically summer dish. Some Senesi even add clove to give more aroma to the pappa. Others beat in an egg, making it a substantial dish. I’ll admit that I was never really a fan of pappa al pomodoro, at least not until I tried the Florentine version.
Peeled, tinned tomatoes are often used in Florence’s take on pappa al pomodoro, making the dish not only a summer offering but a year-round comfort food.
The garlic is replaced (or sometimes accompanied) by leeks, while at other times finely chopped carrots, celery and onion is added. The end result is a deep red, dense and delicious pappa al pomodoro.
My pappa al pomodoro recipe
Striving to find my perfect pappa al pomodoro recipe, I stopped halfway between Siena and Florence, in the Val d’Elsa, right where I live. Just garlic, which makes its presence felt through its aroma, fresh tomatoes peeled and crushed with my hands, plenty of basil and really good oil: my pappa al pomodoro is red and flavourful, garlic and basil dominating the dish’s bouquet.
Here’s my recipe, so that you can recreate pappa al pomodoro at home, one of the most traditional Tuscan dishes.
Pappa al pomodoro
Ingredients for 4 people
- 800 g ripe tomatoes
- 2 garlic cloves
- Dried chilli pepper
- 1 glass of extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 thick slices of stale Tuscan bread
- 1 cup of hot water
- 20 basil leaves
First of all, peel the tomatoes. The pappa will be more velvety without the tomato skins. Cut a cross on the bottom of the tomatoes, dip them in a pan of boiling water for a few minutes, then plunge them quickly into a bowl of cold water. Drain and peel the tomatoes, placing them in a bowl with their water and seeds. Crush them with your hands to break the tomatoes into little pieces.
Cover the bottom of a pan with oil. Add the finely chopped garlic and chilli pepper to taste. Cook until the garlic turns pale gold. Add the crushed tomatoes and cook over low heat until they start to break up, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, soak the stale bread in cold water to revive it. After a few minutes, when the bread has absorbed the water, swelling up like sponges, squeeze and crumble over the tomatoes, adding a cup of hot water.
Season with salt to taste and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, mixing energetically from time to time with a whisk to achieve a creamy and velvety consistency.
Turn off the heat. Add the basil, torn into pieces, and mix the pappa. Pour the remaining oil over the pappa al pomodoro to cover it completely.
Let the pappa rest for at least 1 hour. If you prefer to serve it hot, warm over low heat, or serve at room temperature.