Traditional Panzanella Salad Recipe – Straight from Italy (+ helpful tips)


Panzanella (often called Italian bread salad or panzanella salad) is a classic summer dish in Italy.

It combines leftover ingredients like yesterday’s bread with fresh, in-season vegetables.   

You’ll find it on the menu in Italy in the summer, and it’s easy to make at home too!

Panzanella  is a piatto povero or ‘poor man’s dish.’  Most believe it originated with farmers and their families, who used the previous day’s bread with their garden vegetables.  Others believe it was ‘invented’ by fishermen who dipped their stale bread in the sea and ate it with any vegetables they had with them on the boat. 

Either way, it’s an excellent summer dish!  While there are many versions, especially internationally, this recipe is an authentic panzanella recipe that you’ll find in Tuscany, the region that’s most often associated with the dish.

Good To Know:  You may also see or hear panzanella called panmolle, panmòllo, pane ‘nzuppo, or pansanella.

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When and Where to Eat Panzanella

Enjoy panzanella in the summer, when the main ingredients (tomatoes, cucumber, basil, tropea onion) are at their prime.

You can eat panzanella at:

  • Aperitivo
  • Merenda (snack time for kids)
  • Lunch or dinner as an antipasto (appetizer) or a main dish
  • A picnic – pause your drive and watch the sunset or relax at the edge of a vineyard

You can enjoy panzanella throughout Italy, but four Italian regions claim to be the ‘birthplace’ of the dish – Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, and Le Marche (although the latter makes the dish differently).

Good To Know:  The same idea of not wasting stale bread is used in the autumn and winter here in Italy.  In the cooler months, we make a bread soup, ribollita – literally ‘reboiled.’  Stale bread is combined with leftover vegetables to make a hearty and flavorful soup.

Traditional Panzanella Recipe

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Traditional Panzanella Recipe


  • Author: Candice

Description

An authentic Italian panzanella recipe – perfect for a hot summer day!


Ingredients

1/2 lb stale unsalted bread, broken or cut into small (1 to 2-in) chunks

water to soak bread in

3/4 lb ripe tomatoes on the vine

1 small cucumber, peeled

1 tropea onion (or small red onion or sweet onion)

handful of fresh basil leaves (reserve a few whole leaves for garnish)

red wine vinegar

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

salt


Instructions

1. Thinly slice the onion and soak it in a small bowl of cool water with a splash of vinegar. Let sit for at least 30 minutes, then drain. 

2. Place the bread in a bowl and cover with water and a splash of red wine vinegar.  Depending on the consistency of your bread, it will probably need to soak in the water for about 10 minutes. 

3. Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes, thinly slice the cucumber, chop the basil and add all to a large bowl. 

4. Using your hands, squeeze the water from the bread and add it and the sliced onion to the bowl of tomatoes and cucumbers. 

5. Add the chopped basil, oil, a couple of splashes of red wine vinegar, and salt.  Mix with a spoon.  Taste and add more oil, vinegar, or salt if necessary.

6. Enjoy immediately at room temperature or let the panzanella ‘rest’ for 30 minutes in the refrigerator before serving.

Notes

Drain the tomatoes of excess liquid.

Watch the bread closely so it doesn’t stay in too long and get soggy.

Panzanella Variations

Our family sticks to this traditional panzanella recipe, but we know many Italian families that modify it for their tastes.  Some ingredients you may find in panzanella in an Italian household:

ENGLISHITALIANNOTES
CarrotsCaroteShredded
CelerySedanoThinly sliced
RadishesRavanelliThinly sliced
FennelFinocchioThinly sliced
Bell peppersPeperoniChopped
Fava beansFaveWhole; early summer
BeansFagioliWhole
ParsleyPrezzemoloFresh
ChivesErba cippolinaFresh, chopped
OreganoOriganoFresh, chopped
CornMaisWhole
OlivesOliveSliced
GarlicAglioFresh, minced
StrawberriesFragoleSliced
PeachesPescheCubed
Hot dogsWürstelPre-cooked, sliced
Foods marinated in oilSottoliJarred or in deli
Foods marinated in vinegarSottacetiJarred or in deli
CapersCapperiWhole
Hard boiled eggsUova sodeSliced
MozzarellaMozzarellaCubed
CheeseFormaggioCubed, or shaved, not soft
CouscousCouscousUse instead of bread

What to Eat and Drink with Panzanella

Make an apericena (aperitivo + cena / dinner) or a picnic spread with other classic summer dishes like:

  • Caprese salad – insalata caprese
  • Prosciutto and cantaloupe – prosciutto e melone
  • Tuscan bean salad – insalata di fagioli
  • Rice salad – insalata di riso
  • Grilled chicken – pollo grigliato

Vino rosato (rosé) and vino bianco (white wine) go well with panzanella.  Kids can drink fresh juice.

Tips for Making Authentic Italian Panzanella

Fresh vegetables on a cutting board.  Ingredients for a traditional panzanella salad from Italy.

Use the Right Type of Bread

This is the most important part of making a traditional panzanella salad. Use Tuscan bread!  ‘Tuscan bread’ is unsalted bread that has a hard, thin crust and a dense crumb.  Some breads in Tuscany have a lighter crumb, but avoid those because they will disintegrate when they’re soaked in the water and vinegar.

If you’re in Tuscany, ask for pane Toscano, pane casereccio, or pane sciocco.  You can also tell the person at the bakery, ‘Sto preparando la panzanella.’ “I’m making panzanella.”

If you’re making this panzanella outside of Italy, try to get a similar style of bread. Do not use sandwich bread or soft or porous bread – you will end up throwing your panzanella in the trash.

Good To Know:  Salted bread can be used if unsalted bread isn’t available, but it will need a few days to get stale.  The salt keeps the bread moist.

Good To Know:  My favorite substitute when I’m in the United States is a baguette.  Just make sure it’s not too porous.

Buy Quality Ingredients

If you’re in Italy, head to a local market for the vegetables instead of the grocery store, if possible. 

You can buy the bread at the grocery store bakery, as most grocery stores also have high-quality basic breads.

If you’re making panzanella outside of Italy, make sure you use ripe tomatoes (they should smell like tomatoes!).  If you can’t find good tomatoes, leave them out or add something else in their place (see the list above for ideas).

Don’t Toast the Bread

This isn’t a crouton salad.  This is traditional panzanella that you will find in Italy.

To prepare your bread, cut or tear it into chunks (around 1-inch) and leave it out on the counter overnight – or inside your oven (turned off) if you’re worried about pets or bugs. 

Forgot this step?  Don’t stress – cut or tear it into chunks and put it in the oven at low heat and check every few minutes to see if it’s dried out.  You don’t want to toast it – that makes the outside crispy and leaves the inside soft.  You don’t want soft bread – it will get mushy and dissolve when you put it in the water.

Don’t Oversoak the Bread

Check the bread as it soaks in the water.  As soon as you can make crumbs by squishing it between your fingers, it’s ready.  If you leave it too long, you’ll end up with soggy bread.

Squeeze the Water out of the Bread

You don’t want to end up with a soggy bread salad.  If you squeeze the water out of the bread, it will be fluffy and delicious when accompanied by the simple dressing and the vegetables. 

People who complain about this traditional method of making panzanella have either:

  1. Not squeezed the water out of the bread or
  2. Used the wrong bread – soft breads, ciabatta, and sandwich breads do not work in a traditional panzanella recipe.

Soak the Onions in Water and Vinegar

Pre-soak the sliced onions in water with a splash of vinegar to soften the taste of the onions.

Slice the Basil

Cutting (vs. tearing) the basil helps to release more of the flavor inside the cells, so chop away!

Drain the Tomatoes

If your chopped tomatoes are full of liquid, drain them before you put them in the bowl.  You don’t want the salad to become soggy.

Dress with the Traditional Dressing

Extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.  That’s all you need!  No mustard, no bottled dressings.

Making Panzanella with Kids

Panzanella is a fun kids’ activity because kids love using their hands and squishing the bread!  A parent should slice the vegetables (for young kids), but children can do everything else. 

It’s an excellent recipe to prepare with little ones because there’s no heat or cooking involved and the instructions are easy to follow. 

To make things even simpler, a parent can prepare all of the ingredients and let the child(ren) assemble the dish.

While you’re putting the salad together, you can talk about the concept of in-season foods and how this dish helps prevent food waste.

Helpful Tip:  If your kids enjoy Italian dishes, check out the Silver Spoon For Children cookbook.  The recipes are clear and concise, and it’s one of my favorite cookbooks for kids.

FAQ

How long does panzanella last?
Panzanella tastes best if you eat it within one day, two days max.

Does panzanella need to be refrigerated?
It will stay fresh if you store it in the refrigerator, but it’s fine to bring it to an outdoor picnic or potluck.  There aren’t any ingredients (like mayonnaise) to worry about at warm temperatures.

Where can I find panzanella in Italy?
If you’re in Italy during the warm summer months, you can find panzanella at:

  • Restaurants
  • Aperitivo spreads
  • Dinners at Italian homes
  • Sagre (local festivals), including in Lamoli, Monterotondo, and Onelli

Is panzanella made the same throughout Italy?
No, some regions (and families!) have their own methods.  For example, in the Le Marche and Umbria regions, the bread isn’t usually soaked in water – it’s left in crusty slices and eaten like bruschetta.

Can I use cherry tomatoes in place of tomatoes on the vine?
Yes, you can.  The traditional Tuscan recipe uses tomatoes on the vine, but cherry tomatoes are an acceptable substitute.

Can I use ciabatta bread instead of Tuscan bread?
Ciabatta bread won’t work in this traditional panzanella recipe because it’s too porous.