Oh, the dog days of summer! The heat is intense, sunsets never seem to arrive fast enough, ice cubes melt in our drinks faster than cooling off the drink itself, and dangling in cold water is one’s only escape. So who wants to cook anything that requires heat? It’s time to enjoy beautiful and delicious COLD dishes! What better way to enjoy cooking and eating on blistering hot days, than with a delightful, cold Italian Panzanella Salad with Pancetta! — an ideal recipe to prepare without the use of heat. Before the school bells ring, there’s still time for many of us to prepare some tasty cold dishes to pack up in our baskets and head out to either a beautiful lake or a coastal shore’s sandy beach.
With tomatoes busting off the vines and mounds of basil perfuming the air, it’s the perfect time to enjoy one of Italy’s amazing solutions for combining tomatoes, basil, and day-old bread in this zesty summertime salad. Panzanella is by far one of the easiest ways to showcase the delicious bounty of summer’s gorgeous, juicy tomatoes. A secret among the best Italian cooks and chefs is to only use super-fresh ingredients to result in the very best dishes that your family and friends will appreciate and respect you for knowing the little things that will make all the difference in their eating experience.
Italians have always had an intuitive knack for creating recipes that prevent wasting food. To throw food away is a huge no-no in Italian families which helps explain the origin of this delightful, cold summer Panzanella salad. And to me, tossing out tomatoes that are spoiling on the vine is well . . . a sin in my gardening book!
What Is Panzanella?
Panzanella is a delightful salad for using garden-fresh tomatoes and left-over, dried bread. “Pane” (PAH-nay) means “bread” in Italian and “Zanella” (Zuh-NAY-lluh) means ‘soup bowl”. This tomato and bread salad isn’t fancy at all, but rather it’s rustic, packed full of flavor, and very hearty and substantial . . . after all it is a bread salad! It’s more often enjoyed as a meal in itself because it is so filling.
The ‘secret sauce’ to Panzanella salad is the combination of the fresh juice seeping out from the tomatoes blended in with the vinegar and olive oil. Even those liquids are taken to another level of flavor nirvana with the added essence of basil, garlic, and onions. The bread starts out almost as hard as a rock (seriously) and then softens as the tomato juice and vinaigrette is soaked up. Like cooking magic or alchemy the old bread is revived back to life in a delicious new way: full of tomato, garlic and basil harmonized flavor with a tender, almost al dente density. Some say to use chewy, slightly stale bread, but that lower level of dryness lends to a more mushy texture to the bread cubes . . . and that’s just down-right nasty texture to the tongue. Every element in a simple recipe must be perfect for alchemy to work perfectly.
Panzanella is a classic, yet unpretentious Italian salad that originated from Tuscany way back in the Middle Ages. Similar to most recipes in Italy, the recipe for Panzanella migrated around the Italian (boot) peninsula where home cooks modified recipes to reflect their regions simply by changing out ingredients. But among the variety of recipes, each Panzanella recipe has a distinct and traditional, connecting thread: using up whatever is left over on hand. Panzanella is a delicious recipe that takes advantage of using up old, dried, stale bread.
My nonna (Stella Adani Corieri) always told me stories about the hard times our family had to struggle and endure in the beautiful, but baron mountains where they lived in Northern Italy. Although my relatives in Italy were mere peasants, they were also very clever and resourceful in their cooking methods of peasant dishes that reflected their poverty. Known as “cucina povera”, it literally means “cooking of the poor”.
Panzanella salad is one of those humble peasant dishes that’s origin was inspired by frugal home cooks creating deliciousness from simple, available ingredients. Never wasting anything, peasant cooks resourcefully fed their families stomaches “using every part of the pig, except for the oink”, my mother always told me.
My grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond would be in disbelief to know that today, these peasant dishes now grace the menus of some of the most elite Italian restaurants. In Venice for example, the famous Harry’s Bar offers the most incredible Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms for $95 US! Today, those famous foods and recipes that originated from my native region of Emilia-Romagna (Bologna and Modena) in Northern Italy are known for ‘delicious simplicity’ with few, but high-quality ingredients.
Classic Panzanella has just a few fresh ingredients, plus a few Italian pantry staples. Here’s what you’ll need to make Panzanella:
Stale, crusty bread, several days old, cut into 1-½” cubes/chunks: Use Ciabatta, French bread, or Sourdough. Texture is everything in this salad. You don’t want soggy bread, nor do you want bread that’s too crispy. If you don’t have day-old bread, toast it in the oven or in a skillet on the stovetop.
Garden-fresh tomatoes: Cherry, Compari, or Roma
Fresh basil: Basil makes this salad aromatic and delightful. Do NOT skip it and only use fresh basil
Red onion: Traditional in Panzanella due to its crispness and pungent, sharp heat. Try not to use white or yellow onions.
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Red wine vinegar: Do not use Balsamic Vinegar which is too overpowering for this salad
Garlic, salt, pepper: Panzanella could never be what it is without some of the best, quintessential Italian seasonings
Additions to Satisfy Your Taste Preferences
Pancetta: Diced and Sautee’d. For a little protein and diversity in flavor and texture that doesn’t dominate the salad in any way
Bell peppers: Add red, green, or yellow bell pepper for more crunch
Zucchini or Yellow squash
Cucumbers: Offer an additional layer of cool, refreshment. Mini (Persian) cucumbers or English cucumbers work nicely, standard cukes have seeds that you may want to remove
Parmesan cheese: Big slivers are nice, but grated is fine too. Do not use the ‘green’ can variety. Use good quality, imported Parmigiana!
Capers—Use about 2 tbsp. for a more tangy twist in flavor.
Green olives: Sliced; Use Castelvetrano olives for more tang.
Mozzarella: Diced or grated; offers a creamy element to the tangy salad. A ball of fresh mozzarella is preferred, torn into small bits, or another option is tiny mozzarella balls
Parmesan: Freshly grated and sprinkled all over it adds another level of flavor
Tips for Outstanding Panzanella
Toast day-old bread with garlic-infused oil for extra flavor
Avoid large tomatoes that can be so soft and juicy that they completely break down when sprinkled with salt. You want Panzanella to be a little juicy, and at the same time have some body and firm texture; smaller tomatoes are the answer.
For years I have wanted to make panzanella. Ever since I watched Michael Chiarello on FoodNetwork. Then I entertained the idea again when IHCC was cooking with Giada. So what’s holding me back? No idea! But I think maybe it’s time!
I’m printing this recipe and I’m going to make it over the weekend. I’ve never had a panzanella salad and this one looks too good to pass up. Anything with bacon is delicious!! Jackie
I certainly make panzanella my way too – this one is my kind of salad! Very pretty photos too Roz – nice job showing off this gorgeous and cool salad.
wow what a wonderful salad and I want to sit and eat next to the water!!
I would pay you a million bucks to come here right now and make this for me. Seriously.
Oh my does that look delicious! Are you coming over and cooking dinner tonight? Your pictures are beautiful as always 🙂
Panzanella is one of my favorite things to eat. This one looks great with wonderful flavors. Great addition to the menu!
Fresh Healthy delicous I love it !!
Oh yum! This is my kind of salad. I would love to be in the mountains right now.
Look wonderful Roz! gloria
That looks so good Roz. I’m in summer clothes today and with only 3 more weeks of winter left, I’ll be tucking into that sooner than I think.
I am starting vacation tomorrow and will definitely include this in on the menu
Hi Roz, I love your recipe. Your have taken my favorite summer sandwich, bacon and tomato, and turned it into an Italian salad. Now all I need is for my tomatoes to start ripening. Being lakeside is nice. Even is it’s warm in the day you usually need a quilt at night. Hope you have a wonderful time.
This salad is so perfect for this time of the year when trips to the farmers market are a weekly pleasure.Great job Roz!
Bacon looks so crispy and the whole salat would almost serve as a lunch for me;)
Just when I though you couldn’t make panzanella salad any better, you added bacon. You’ve turned the best sandwich in the world to a fabulous crunchy salad Roz. Great job. Enjoy the cool weather.
YUM! We love panzanella but don’t make it very often because the tomatoes around here are generally flavourless. Now that the fresh tomatoes from local farmers are hitting the market it just might be time to try this out.
Oh, this is the epitome of summer, Roz! I’m going to make a string of tomato recipes when we get home…this yummy salad is so inspirational~
It is not a very tradidional panzanella ~ but fabulous none the less!
Perfect for our beach picnic.
looks delicious, i love panzanella salad. especially in the summer
I love this, it looks amazing!
Wow, I would say that this is the perfect summer salad, Roz. I just happen to have all the ingredients so this will be on our table tonight. Great photos.
Bacon in panzanella salad? Genius! Alas, here in the midwest, we are still waiting for tomatoes. Our unusual weather has slowed them down and it may be September before they arrive in the farm markets. I am so anxious!!
Lately, I don’t cook. I throw fresh produce together and call it a day. However, I have some mighty fine bacon in the fridge and I know it’s itching to jump into that salad! scrumptious!
I must have stopped by before you posted this because I know i would have been in heaven with this salad. Love Love Love it! A combo of my favorite things
What an absolutely beautiful salad. The colors are gorgeous! blessings, Catherine
Beautiful! That is a mouthwatering salad. So fresh and appetizing looking.
That salad looks like a nice change of pace from the average fare.
This is so pretty and colorful!
I had to come back and tell you that I made this wonderful recipe this past week. I finally got around to it and I could kick myself in the butt for waiting so long. Our entire family LOVED it! It will be on our menu regularly now…thank you 🙂
Panzanella…one of my favorites! It looks lovely…Just before the tomatoea are gone!
Hi Vanilla Ale Monade!
I agree with you that panzanella is a favorite summer salad! With fresh tomatoes for sure! Thanks for stopping by!
This looks so refreshing, perfect for a Florida meal.
Thank you so much for your kind compliment Holly! Best wishes on the giveaway! Enjoy your sunny days in Florida too!
La Bella Vita Cucina
A humble yet very tasty salad and so perfect for the summer now!
Thank you Angie . . . simple things are often the best!
Grazie mille! – I’ve just printed off your recipe. I’ve been meaning to make Panzanella for a long time (I live in Italy so there’s no excuse!) and you’re recipes is inspiring me to make an effort at last!
……sorry, that should read ‘your recipe’!