Looking for recipes that would allow me to take full advantage of all the wonderful tomatoes found at the farmer's market this time of year brought me back to the mid 1990s and my favorite restaurant in Italy.
My grandmother had just renovated a villa in the hills of Umbria in a wonderful medieval town of Citta della Pieve in Perugia. The old Villa Rosetta is steeped in history, purported to have been named after King Emanuel 2nd's lover, Rosa. And although he was married it is said that Rosa was his one true love. She gave him 2 children, Vittoria and Emanuel. I had heard rumors of an underground tunnel leading from Villa Rosetta to the King's home in Rome. So naturally, I tried looking for it and had no luck. This Umbrian home that was named after the King's true love would, centuries later, become a German command post in the Second World War. How fitting then, that a former American Navy Pilot who also happened to be a German and a Jew would end up living at the home with his wife (who also happened to have German and Jewish ancestry).
This husband and wife were my grandparents. My grandmother bought this home as a present to herself for her 70th Birthday. After teaching herself Italian she began the massive renovations to make the home liveable. (Because this was to be a summer home, she spared herself the expense of modernizing it with heat!) Her renovations included restoring all of the home's frescoed ceilings, installing a swimming pool, tennis court and the most magnificent gardens that yielded the most divine bounty.
We typically took lunch at home, on the terrace, poolside if the weather allowed. Lunches were always the same, and we dined on salad daily with items meticulously grown and handpicked from her own gardens. The only thing that would vary was the bread picked up at the local bakery. For dinner we went out almost every night. When we stayed in town, there were two restaurants she favored and everyone knew and greeted Signor and Signora Bachmann by name. But it was Trattoria Bruno Coppetta (Bruno's) that completely stole our hearts, captivated our tastebuds and is permanently etched in my own memory. Although I haven't been in 20 years I can remember with the utmost clarity the many wonderful dishes I ate... We were fed handsomely and one dish was better than the next. It was at Bruno's where I would enjoy many of my "firsts" which would hold the standard to which today's dishes are measured. To know really good food one must have experienced it from the source. New York Times Restaurant and Food Critic Patricia Brooks shared that thought with me over lunch one day a few weeks ago in New Canaan. And so Bruno's still holds the gold standard.
It was at Bruno's that I would have my first Panzanella -- a Tuscan bread salad that is out of this world. A good panzanella will be abundant with freshly picked, perfectly ripened tomatoes. For my own, I used just a small amount of bread for taste and texture. (I am trying desperately to watch my carbs.) It is suggested and encouraged to use a day old crusty bread that will absorb the juices and not get soggy. You really need a hearty bread for this dish; the type I refer to as Crunch and Chew. One that has a solid crust and a dense dough. A fresh bread that's mostly airy dough and less crust will feel heavy and soggy and that's not what we are after here. The salad is best when made ahead of time allowing the tomatoes to marinate in the dressing, with the bread tossed in just prior to serving.
Now there are, of course, varied ways to make this salad, but the key ingredients are always tomatoes and bread. You could add onion, and cucumber if you wish but I didn't. I kept it to the tomatoes and the bread, but I used assorted heirloom tomatoes and peppers to create a depth of color and punctuated the flavors by tossing in a few capers and a couple of olives that I had chopped into small pieces. I created a very simple dressing by adding 1 anchovy to a little bit of olive oil. Don't be afraid of the anchovy! Its saltiness lends itself perfectly to the tomatoes and crusty bread. If you choose not to add it simply add more coarse salt be it sea salt, Himalayan salt or Maldon.
Serves *2 - 4
*2 cups of freshly picked tomatoes, either red, heirloom or a mix
1 bell pepper
1 scant tsp capers
1 tbs capers
6-8 olives thinly sliced
2 - 3 slices of bread with the crustiest pieces possible!
1 1/2 tsp. Olive oil
1-2 tsp red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp lemon juice (from lemon)
* Depending on what, if anything, you're serving with this.
Into a large bowl I added bite sized pieces of heirloom tomatoes - green, yellow and red for their varied colors, a sweet multi-colored pepper, a few capers, sliced olives and let them bask in their own juices. A quick twist of the salt and pepper grinders... I let them sit while I prepared the dressing.
Next I added about a teaspoon (give or take) of olive oil to a ramekin and started working the anchovy into the oil using a small whisk. The anchovy will break down and start to dissolve in the oil. As it started to do so I added a couple squeezes of lemon and some freshly ground pepper.
I then added some bread and cut the ends off of a really crusty and chewy loaf of bread into bite-sized pieces and mixed them in with the tomato and pepper mixture.
Add the dressing and toss well just prior to serving to ensure that there's just enough to coat everything without rendering the bread completely soggy and mushy. Once the dressing has been added, serve immediately!
Although it looks like I may have used a lot of bread, it's really not a lot. Don't worry about the bread abosrbing too much flavor (or not enough) there'll be plenty of natural juices from the tomatoes and the dressing to dredge the bread through.