Nov 032007
 

When Cory and I arrived in Florence, one of the first things I noticed on menus at local restaurants was tomato and bread soup. I had never heard of it and honestly was thinking, well, something close to “ew.”

But then there was Il Latini, the renowned restaurant that hasn’t lost its local charm despite its fame (which I have already described in my Panna Cotta entry). Since it was our last night in Tuscany and we had finally found the Florence restaurant of our dreams — the restaurant that we had literally stumbled across, having gotten lost in the streets in our quest for food — I decided to branch out and try some of the truly local cuisine. Even though we were offered many, many delicious options for our primi, I ordered the pappa al pomodoro.

Basil, pre-soup!
Nikon D50

As soon as the waiter set the bowl down in front of me all of my previous expectations evaporated. I had been imagining something much like American tomato soup, thin and watery with an assertive salt flavor. Instead I was served a hearty, thick, delicious soup with deep tomato and bright basil flavor. Its texture on the tongue is like no other soup I’ve ever had. Cory, with his singularly amazing gnocchi, was something akin to jealous.

Bread, thinly sliced before going in the soup
Nikon D50

So, unsurprisingly, Cory and I started looking for a way to duplicate this soup experience when we got back to the States. The William-Sonoma Florence cookbook had disappointing results (which is a cautionary tale to American cooks that what we consider to be aromatics like celery and carrots will never ever stand a chance against plenty of fresh basil), and I was almost beginning to despair until I remembered that in the front window of Il Latini a TV was playing a tape of the international media coverage the restaurant had gotten — and they had played a clip of Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day. Feeling slightly dirty (to put it delicately, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ms. Ray), I hunted down the episode online, and lo and behold, she had their recipe!!! Cory and I cooked it together, and it was everything we remembered and brought back wonderful memories of that night in Florence.

Soup in progress
Nikon D50

So if you can’t make it to Florence yourself, at least do yourself this favor and make this soup. It’s so representative of how Italians can take something most Americans would throw away (stale bread), add it to a couple of fresh, simple ingredients, and create something warm, delicious, and satisfying.

Tuscan tomato and bread soup, finished and topped with fresh basil
Nikon D50


Pappa al Pomodoro — Tuscan tomato and bread soup
From Il Latini, my favorite restaurant in Florence
Serves 4

It is very important that your bread actually be stale, otherwise the soup will not thicken properly. If you have an authentic country or artisan bread with a thick crust, leaving it unwrapped and intact on the counter-top is not going to get it stale in fewer than two or three days. I’d suggest cutting it into three or four large chunks to expedite the staling.
If you find yourself without stale bread on the day of the soup-making, which could happen to anyone if, say, your dog ate the bread off the counter (no glaring at Sienna – this is purely hypothetical!), simply slice the bread thinly and lay it on an oven rack at 225 degrees for 35 minutes (or until dried through). This should stale it nicely and evenly, and it avoids a oh-no-I-only-have-fresh-bread crisis.
Use the best and ripest tomatoes you can find. We’re coming into Not Good Produce Season in Alaska, so I’ll be using canned whole tomatoes next time I make this.
Use lots of basil! I’m a basil fiend and I add huge amounts, but really, that’s the way I had it in Italy when it was prepared by Italians. If you aren’t getting basil in every bite, add more.
4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped, plus plenty of extra torn leaves for the finish
Salt and pepper to taste
1 quart chicken or beef stock, boiling
12 ounces rustic artisan or Italian bread, left to get stale and then very thinly sliced (to clarify: 12 ounces is the fresh weight, not the stale weight. Your soup will be far too thick if you use 12 ounces of stale bread)
Chop the garlic cloves roughly and brown in 2 tablespoons of oil. As soon as they start to turn color, add the tomatoes, plenty of basil, salt and pepper, to taste. Cook for 15 minutes and then add the boiling stock.
When this has reached boiling point again, add the thinly sliced bread and continue cooking for 15 more minutes, stirring frequently. Use a whisk to help break down the bread, if needed. Remove from heat.
After 1 hour, stir the soup rigorously so that the bread completely disintegrates. Serve hot or lukewarm, adding a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh basil leaves. This soup is served without cheese.

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