From crunchy crostini to chewy ciabatta, bread (pane in Italian) is a key feature in Italian cuisine. It’s eaten at breakfast with a strong coffee, at lunch with all sorts of delicious fillings, and with dinner to mop up leftover sauces (the phrase fare la scarpetta means to use your chunk of bread as a little shoe to get all the sauce – a truly Italian action!).
There are dozens of regional breads to try out, but here are a few of the best that we think you should look out for in Italy (or even back home – plenty of delis and supermarkets now stock Italian speciality breads).
This versatile flatbread originated in Liguria, up in the north of Italy, Although you can find fantastic focaccia all over Italy, die-hard fans claim that the very best is still made up in the towns and villages around Genoa (my personal favourite was from a bakery slightly south of Genoa, in the Cinque Terre village of Manarola). Traditional focaccia is eaten warm from the oven, with a simple olive oil and salt topping, but nowadays there are hundreds of different variations – herbs like rosemary are used to add more flavour, while more substantial toppings like cheeses, olives and meats are used to make it more filling and sandwich-like. You can also try sweet versions, which are usually made with dried fruits.
This crispy, almost poppadom-like flatbread hails from Sardinia, where it’s been eaten for thousands of years. If kept dry, it keeps for around a year – this long shelf life meant it was popular with shepherds, who used to take it out onto the pastures. Try it with local cheese and a drizzle of honey.
Ciabatta means ‘slipper’ in Italian – and this is how a ciabatta usually looks. Broad, fairly flat, and with a slight dip in the middle. It’s often drizzled with olive oil – the little holes in the bread soak up excess oil, making the bread lovely and moist. It’s the go-to bread for sandwiches, and is filled and toasted to make delicious panini. Bruschetta is also often made with ciabatta – the bread is sliced and toasted, then rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil or chopped tomatoes.
Panettone is a sweet bread that comes from Milan. It’s usually a huge loaf, filled with raisins and dried fruits. Traditionally it’s eaten around Christmas time (as a breakfast dish, afternoon snack or after-dinner treat), but you’ll still find it in supermarkets and food shops year-round. It keeps well, so is perfect for taking back as a gift – or just enjoying yourself once you’re home!
Pane di Altamura
If you’re heading to Puglia, make sure you sample this regional bread. It’s made with a particular flour that’s cultivated in the area close to Bari, and even has a D.O.P (denominazione origine protetta or protected designation of origin), which prevents inferior products from elsewhere being marketed as pane di Altamura. It has a thick, crispy crust and a chewy interior, and is often served alongside stews and broths.
As you might guess by the name, this S-shaped shaped bread is a native of Sicily. Made with semolina flour, it’s got quite a nutty taste to it, and comes coated in crunchy sesame seeds. It’s often baked on 13 December to celebrate Santa Lucia (patron saint of the town of Syracuse), but we think it makes the perfect snack at any time of year.
Which Italian breads do you love? Have you ever tried making them at home?
Take a look at the rest of our Italian Foods to Try series.