Italy is a country that can list 200 types of bread and, as usual, every region is an independent reality with a specific set of traditional recipes. Want to travel an Italian region and try the local bread? Read this article and discover its specialities!
Italian bread. I was inspired to write about it for a couple of reasons: the love of Italians for the process of making bread, renewed during the
first of a series of lockdown(s), and a couple of conversations I had with you on social media. Some of you were kind of surprised when I stated that I believed bread was more important than pasta for Italians and so I wanted to explain and delve more into the topic.
For me, for example, bread is a literal part of my childhood: being a carbohydrates lover, I’ve always enjoyed eating it very much, but I’m totally aware I have always been spoiled in that sense. Not many children could regularly eat handmade bread, nor witness to the ritual of making it and baking it in an ancient Cimbrian oven. Even if many children weren’t as lucky as me, I’m sure many Italians have fond childhood memories of nonnas preparing their favourite panino for them.
Other than a culinary value, bread has a symbolic and even sacred meaning. Traditionally it is an emblem of Jesus and, due to this reason, we were taught by our nonnas never to “disrespect” the bread on the table. Bread is never to be put upside down and, if, by chance, it fell on the floor, grandmas gave it the so-called “healing kiss”. There’s also a large offer of ritual breads, especially in Southern Italy, that are literally “bread art” and produced only during specific religious festivities or ceremonies. All of this is obviously something that seems to have more of a superstitious value than a spiritual one, but that’s how religion works in Italy: spirituality is often mixed with a series of secular practices and beliefs.
During the course of history, bread has always played a central role and has also been used in the political scene to obtain votes or push the propaganda. Mussolini famously wrote the “Prayer for the Bread” and the well-known idiom “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) goes back to the Roman times when bread was offered by politicians to the people during the plays in the amphitheatres in order to “buy” their favour.
If on one hand bread is something that unifies the country, an element we have in common in all regions, on the other hand we have differences and characteristics typical of every place of origin. If we have to make a general distinction between Northern and Central/Southern regions, I would say that in the latter ones bakers produce bigger loaves using durum wheat and meant to last for a long time; in Northern Italy the loaves are smaller, crunchier, more risen and made with soft wheat flour. It is estimated that in Italy there are around 200 types of bread and today I will list for you just some of the regional varieties. If you travel around Italy, you’ll have at least an idea of which kind of bread is local.
Valle d’Aosta / Aosta Valley
The Aosta Valley, being at the border with France, has a bread which kind of reminds the French millas: it’s the MIASSA, a salty flatbread, made with corn flour and water. It is to be consumed with local cheeses and cold cuts.
Piemonte / Piedmont
The most famous Piemontese products are, without a doubt, the GRISSINI, the breadsticks. The grissini are basically a derivation of a loaf called grissia, which used to be sold by the piece and not by the weight. Due to the inflation that occurred in the 14th century, the grissia, with time, was produced smaller and smaller until it reached the form of a grissino, a stick. Nowadays you can find two kinds of breadsticks: grissini rubatà and grissini stirati.
Another interesting variation, basically a larger version of the breadstick, is the so-called LINGUA DI SUOCERA (lit. Mother-in-law’s tongue, LOL), which is crisp and crumbly.
Lombardia / Lombardy
The MICHETTA is the most famous Milanese bread. It’s a “puffed” bread, kind of empty on the inside. It’s also called rosetta or stelina in the area of Bergamo. PANE AL MAIS, corn bread, is also very widespread in Lombardy. In the area of Mantua we have the BAULE, the RICCIOLINA and the SCHIACCIATINA. The latter is an Hebraic recipe coming directly from the Renaissance.
Alto Adige / South Tyrol
The characteristics typical of the breads of this area are a large use of the rye flour and the fats – like oil, milk, butter – being replaced by spices, herbs and seeds (caraway, fennel, poppy, sesame, pumpkin etc.) One of the most popular bread types is the so-called SCHŰTTELBROT, which literally means “shaken bread”. The dough is placed on a round support, which is repetitively hit against a board: this procedure gives the bread the form of a disk. It’s made from rye flour, starter, caraway and fennel seeds and it’s slightly burned at the centre. It’s very good when eaten with the local speck.
Other popular breads are the VINSCHGAU PAARL and the BRETZEL, a variation of the popular German pretzel.
Trentino / Autonomous Province of Trento
A popular bread from Trentino is the so-called GRAMOLATO, which is a twine of two small pressed loaves. Its name derives from the gramola, a big wooden tool used to knead the dough, which is also used in other regions like Emilia Romagna and Veneto.
Another popular bread, typical of the Northern part of the Lake Garda, is the PAN DE MOLCHE, usually made in the period of the olives’s pressing. The leftovers of the olives are indeed added in the dough.
From Veneto, my region, comes one of the most internationally famous Italian breads: the CIABATTA. The “Ciabatta Italia” was officially invented in Adria in 1982 by a former rally driver. It is a white bread made from wheat flour, water, salt, yeast and olive oil.
Another popular bread is the CORNETTO, which in the area of Vicenza is called ciopa. It’s a bread made by two rolled parts attached together and with a couple of horns on top. The dough is quite hard to work and people back in the days and some purists nowadays, have been using the gramola, the tool I mentioned before, and that you can see in my IGTV video.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
Typical of the province of Udine and the area of Carnia is the GRISPOLENTA, basically a big breadstick, made from corn flour (30%) and wheat flour (70%). Other breads from this region are the BIGA (from the city of Trieste) and the KAISER, which is heritage of the former Austrian-Hungarian domination.
A staple of the Ligurian cuisine is, without any sort of doubt, the FUGASSA, the classic focaccia from Genova, which is also guaranteed and “protected” by the famed Slow Food Movement. It is 1 cm thick, oily and with an amber crust. It can be eaten at breakfast, as a street food and as an afternoon snack. There are many versions of focaccia in Liguria and, among these, there are the Focaccia di Voltri and the famous Focaccia di Recco, which is really thin and filled with stracchino cheese.
When we talk about Emilia Romagna we cannot forget to mention the COPPIA FERRARESE, which is a 700 years old recipe, typical of the city of Ferrara. It is crunchy and crumbly and with a very peculiar appearance, which allegedly has several sexual symbologies.
The Romagna’s bread par excellence is the PIADA, nicknamed piadina. It is a fast food characterized by high quality and long tradition and, for this reason, it has gained popularity in the whole peninsula. As a consequence, there are, sadly, many industrial and poor versions of it in the market. Being probably a derivation of the Hebraic unleavened bread, purists say yeast should not be used when making it.
CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN ITALY
Toscana / Tuscany
It’s well-known that the typical PANE TOSCANO is a bread without salt. The custom of not using the salt is said to go back to the XII century, when the rivalry between Pisa and Florence had reached its apex and the inhabitants of the former blocked the trade of the salt.
The PIZZA BIANCA from Rome is a focaccia 2/3 cm thick that has a slightly amber colour and salt grains on the surface. It was originally invented to serve as a means to measure the temperature of the oven: according to how quick it took the focaccia to bake, they could understand the ideal heat level.
Another traditional bread present not only in Rome, but in the whole region, is the CIRIOLA ROMANA.
In the whole Umbria, the so-called “core of Italy”, it is common the PANE DI TERNI, a bread with a crumbly crust and a soft part which is thin and regular. The consistency it gains a day after its purchase is considered ideal in order to make a great bruschetta; after 4/5 days it’s good enough to make a panzanella.
The region of Marche has a great and long tradition concerning bread. The cultivation of the wheat was really important in the period of ancient Rome and the one concerning the spelt goes back to the ancient civilization of the Piceni, for whom it even had a really important symbolic meaning. During the ceremony of the confarratio, the families of the betrothed used to exchange spelt bread as a gift. The cultivation of this cereal has lately been rediscovered and the PANE AL FARRO is certainly something you should try when visiting this region.
Abruzzo and Molise
The most popular bread of these two regions is PANE DI SENATORE CAPPELLI. Senatore Cappelli is a kind of durum wheat, which was pretty popular until the 60s, when it was replaced with more productive cultivations. It has recently been rediscovered and promoted for its qualifies.
Another good type of bread is PANE SPIGA, typical of the Chieti area.
The TARALLI used to be the food of the poor people, cheap and nourishing, and we can classify them in three main categories: taralli sugna e pepe, which I mentioned in my post about the street food in Naples, taralli di Castellamare di Stabia and the taralli bolliti dell’Avellinese.
PANE CAFONE, made with rough flour, is widespread in the whole region, but it is extremely popular in Ischia Ponte, especially during the Feast of St. Anna and St. Giovanni in Croce, and in the area between Pompeii and Torre del Greco, where it’s called “torrese”.
Among the breads of this region, we can mention the PANE DI MATERA, which is made of local durum wheat. Its crust is brown and crunchy and the soft part is yellow with evident alveolar holes. It can last for more than 15 days.
Puglia / Apulia
In Apulia it is to be found what it is considered the king of all Italian breads: PANE DI ALTAMURA. Altamura is a town in the Murge plateau, which was famous for the production of bread even at the times of the Romans.
The typical loaf weights 1 kg and it has a beautiful brown crust. It is made with durum wheat and baked in an oven which is supposed to use only oak wood. It lasts around 15 days and when stale it is used to make a famous traditional dish, la cialledd.
We can find TARALLI even in Apulia, made with soft wheat flour and extra virgin olive oil. Taralli from Apulia are quite popular in the whole country. Belonging to this “family” there is also the FRISELLA, a product used by the shepherds back in the days, because it was long-lasting.
Among the most popular products of this region, we can list the Calabrese version of the frisella called FRESA and the PITTA CALABRESE, some sort of round focaccia, which is thin and soft. Like pizza bianca from Lazio, it is a “secondary” bakery product, something which, back in the days, was only used as a means to test the temperature of the oven. You can understand the humble origins of this bread by trying a particular version of the pitta called pitta minata, which is made by “tapping” dough leftovers.
Sicilia / Sicily
The word SFINCIONE, a very popular street food in Palermo, derives from the Greek sponghia, sponge, due to the softness of the product. It was invented by the nuns of St. Vito’s Monastery and it consists of a soft bread served with a sauce made of tomato, onion, anchovies, oregano and Sicilian cheese.
Sardegna / Sardinia
The most famous Sardinian product is, without any sort of doubt, PANE CARASAU, which is a very crispy flatbread in the form of a disk. It is very easy to break it in small pieces and to carry around: it was in fact used by the shepherds, who used to stay far from home for months. The term “carasatura”, where this bread takes its name from, means “toasting”.
I’m perfectly aware that this is not a complete list: I’ve just mentioned some products just to help tourists to navigate the large bread offer Italy has. Have you already tried some of these? Do you have a favourite?