Pappa al Pomodoro
I left home for Italy at 18. I rented a minuscule one bedroom apartment in the Campo di Marte district of Florence with a friend from high school and we decided ahead of time to stay 5 months. It was my first time in Italy, and the entirety of my Italian consisted in counting to five, which I’d learned on the plane ride over. Having no Italian ancestry, I held no solid internalized myths about Italy, her people, or her food. Everything would be fine, I figured, I like lasagna.
My friend and I got along fairly well, but didn’t always delight in each other’s company (we shared a bedroom, and his epic snoring actually inspired my first, and probably most sincere, homicidal thoughts). This left me with ample time alone to explore Florence on foot, testing out my budding (read: unintelligible) Italian. Even though I couldn’t read or speak, I could tell that, much to my initial dismay, there was not going to be much lasagna in Florence. In fact, many traditional trattorie and osterie didn’t serve pasta at all. And since beyond the words “pasta” and “pizza” I couldn’t read a menu, I often found myself at the mercy of the waiter.
To be completely honest, I’d always believed I didn’t like pasta, a crazy idea I blame on the fact that everyone overcooked it, and on my mom who still will not eat pasta unless cooked by Francesco or, if the stars are aligned juuuuust so, me. In any case, I didn’t find the lack of pasta in Florence all that distressing and quickly found a new thing to pine after: soups.
Now that I think of it, soup doesn’t really do this pappa al pomodoro justice. In Italian, pappa means, broadly, food; and, more specifically, mushy food. Though I’m no historian, I’d say dishes like this kept everyone from teething babes to the toothless elderly well fed in tough times by using avanzi, leftovers, to make a meal. It, along with ribollita, another of Florence’s trophy first courses, it’s nothing more than stale, unsalted bread reheated with broth and vegetables. Sounds eh, not so much? I know. But it really is incredibly good, easy to prepare, and it uses up all that stale bread you’ve been stashing.
PAPPA AL POMODORO (Bread and Tomato Soup)
This recipe makes enough for 4 servings, but feel free to mess with the quantities to make more or less. It’s also perfect reheated.
1½ lbs (800 grams) ripe tomatoes
10 fresh basil leaves
3 garlic cloves
1 liter broth
½ lb (250 grams) stale bread, crusts removed
Peel the tomatoes by boiling them in salted water for a minute or so, until their skins start to burst. Drain and when cool to touch, the peels will slip right off. Discard the peels and chop the tomatoes. If your bread isn’t really stale, toast it.Chop the basil and garlic together until they are very fine. In a soup pot, heat a good amount of olive oil and fry the basil and garlic for a few minutes, then add the chopped, skinless tomatoes. Add a bit of salt and pepper, then cook on low for about 20 minutes.
Add the broth and bring the soup to a boil. Rip the bread into small chunks and add to the soup; simmer over low heat for about 40 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the bread is mushy.
Serve in soup bowls topped with your best olive oil and some fresh basil.