Monday, 6 April 2015

Pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup)

Pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup)

Pappa al pomodoro  is one of the most popular and prepared recipes of the Tuscan culinary tradition.
Literally pappa means mush (but it is also the term used to indicate semi-solid baby food) and, as almost anybody knows, pomodoro means tomato. From this description it doesn't sound so appetizing, does it? But, trust me, the only reason why this dish is so famous and timeless is that it is absolutely delicious, mainly thanks to its simplicity and "poor" origin.
And in fact this tomato and bread soup (this definition sound better indeed) is one of those classic Italian dishes created out of necessity, when it was not possible to waste food, not even a piece of stale bread, that has to be reused to make it still edible: in pappa al pomodoro old bread is cooked with ripe tomatoes (or even canned or preserved ones when fresh are not available), garlic and / or onion, a generous quantity of extra virgin olive oil, some liquid (stock, when available, or salted water), salt, pepper (or chili in some versions) until everything turns into a thick, creamy and really comforting soup.

Like all traditional Italian recipes pappa al pomodoro can be found in countless lightly different versions all across the Tuscany region (and not only): in fact the Florentine recipe differs from the Sienese version as well as from the Pratese one, but also every single Tuscan family has its own favorite recipe, usually handed down from one generation to the following one.  
I must confess that I am not from Tuscany and so cannot refer to any family recipe for pappa al pomodoro; but I visited Tuscany many times and tried several different - all delicious though- versions of this dish. And since I really adore this simple yet amazing soup, I have made it so many times at home - and in many different ways - that I have finally come up to MY recipe, with the combination of ingredients I prefer and my favorite preparation method.

Some recipes call for garlic, others for onion, others for both: I like to use both garlic and onion, with an addition of leek, when I have it on hand.
I also like to lightly toast in the oven my two-days old bread before adding it to the soup: this step adds a pleasant flavor to the dish. I peel tomatoes (I don't like to find pieces of skin in the soup) and cook them for a while with the sautéed onion and garlic before adding bread and vegetable stock.
But if you read cookbooks or search the Internet you will find thousand recipes for this soup: different combination and proportion of ingredients, different preparation steps, different cooking times. Small differences for lightly different final results.
Pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup)

Whether you wish to try my recipe or make another one of your liking, there are few recommendation that I want to say before you give this amazing dish a deserved try.
1) Choose fresh, ripe tomatoes, paying attention they are not too watery (tomatoes from the Farmers Market available at this time of the year are perfect, in my opinion). And make this soup only when tomatoes are in season (if you wake up in winter with a terrible craving for pappa al pomodoro, better use canned tomatoes than tasteless fresh ones). 
2) Use a good bread, if possible a sourdough bread or a farmhouse bread; don't be tempted to use a cheap sandwich or sliced bread if you don't want to compromise the result!
And if you have the chance to travel to Tuscany, and maybe cook on your own, make this soup with the Tuscan unsalted bread. 

3) Do not add cheese, as suggested by someone: it alters the deep tomato flavor and, most important, is not part of the ingredients list in the old, traditional recipes for pappa al pomodoro.
Pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup)

Pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup)
serves  4 to 6
1 kg ripe plum tomatoes
1 liter stock, vegetable or meat stock (preferably homemade)
250 gr stale Tuscan bread (or sourdough or peasant bread)
1 large onion (sometimes I substitute 1/2 onion with 1 small leek)
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh basil
extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheated the oven  at 180°C.
Slice and cube the bread (you can remove the crust if you like, I prefer to keep it for a more rustic texture) and toast it in the oven for about 10 minutes, then set aside.
Chop the leek, onion and garlic and add them to a large pot with 5 -6 tablespoons olive oil, bay leaves and some basil chopped with your hands; sauté on low heat for about 15 minutes, until soft but not browned.
In the meantime peel the tomatoes, remove seeds and roughly chop (to remove the tomato peel easily, blanch for 20 seconds in boiling water then cool under running water).
Add the tomatoes to the pot with the onion and leek, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Then add the toasted bread and about three quarters of the vegetable stock, bring to a boil and let simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you have a thick and creamy soup. If the soup gets too dry add some of the reserved stock or water.
When the soup is ready, taste and adjust the seasoning, add some basil leaves and set aside covered with a lid for at least one hour before serving.
You can lightly reheat before serving, adding some liquid if necessary, or leave it at room temperature. Divide the soup into serving bowls, add a generous dash of extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and some torn basil.


  1. I used to make a version of this soup when I first got married because we could never finish our bread fast enough and I usually had the rest of the ingredients on hand. I do have to admit that I always added fresh parmesan, - rather untraditional as I've learnt from your post(!)

    1. I know Erum that some recipes suggest to add cheese (parmigiano, pecorino or ricotta salata), but this is not the way how this soup is served in Tuscany, also because it's origins are very "poor" while cheese was a quite expensive food, to reserve for special occasion.
      And I like it plain. But anyway all traditional dishes can be interpreted in different ways...