The Critic Cooks: Panzanella Bread Salad

September 2013

At this time of year more than any other, I’m on the lookout for easy meals to make at home. My husband’s vegetable garden is overflowing with produce, and I prefer to keep things simple so that the flavors of just-plucked beets, turnips, peppers, and—this month—heirloom tomatoes really shine. Enter my take on panzanella salad (pictured).

According to Marcella Hazan, the cookbook author who has been called the “Godmother of Italian Cooking,” panzanella is a bread salad originally from central Italy, and is “based on that old standby of the ingenious poor, bread and water,” she writes in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. In its simplest form the salad is nothing but tomatoes, basil, olive oil, vinegar, and chunks of toasted and moistened bread. Some traditional recipes also call for onion, garlic, anchovies, capers, bell peppers, or cucumbers.

Using a combination of vine-sweet red and yellow tomatoes, a toasted and torn boule from the Denver Bread Company, and a pesto-like, five-basil dressing, my recent lunch of panzanella was one of the most satisfying one-bowl meals I’ve had in weeks. And it got me thinking, perhaps with a little variation this is a dish I could eat all month, doing each day’s ripest tomatoes justice.

Hazan insists that “given the right bread—not supermarket white, but gutsy, country bread such as that of Tuscany or Abruzzi—there is no change one can bring to the traditional version that will improve it.” I’m willing to bet several area chefs might beg to differ.

At Potager, Teri Ripetto is one of many chefs serving panzanella alongside roast chicken. She adds peaches, pine nuts, and currants to the definitive combination of farmers’ market tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, cucumber, capers, Nicoise olives, basil, and torn and toasted sourdough boules. Carbondale’s Mark Fischer includes Burrata and a punch of chile flakes to his version at Town. In Boulder, at the Kitchen, chefs Paul McGuire and Dennis Phelps incorporate shaved Parmesan cheese and purslanePanzano’s Elise Wiggins turns the classic into an entrée salad by including jewel lettuce, Gorgonzola, and a rotating protein such as grilled, house-butchered pork loin. Jason Harrison, the chef at Flame restaurant in Vail, subs Parmesan lavosh cracker for the bread and drizzles a deconstructed version of the salad with a 10-year balsamic and a mint-jalapeño vinaigrette. At Ya Ya’s Euro Bistro in Greenwood Village, chef Aaron Whitcomb is running a compressed watermelon panzanella as a special this month. He plates the fruit with heirloom grape tomatoes, feta, a champagne-pineapple vinaigrette, and fried house-made focaccia. “I like to fry it to get the richness up,” Whitcomb says. 

Most inventive, Frank Bonanno serves an Asian spin on the Italian classic at Bones. It combines grilled semolina loaf, tomato confit, Thai basil, hearts of palm, crunchy seaweed, tofu, lemon cucumber, and black garlic vinaigrette.

Whether you adhere to Hazan's definition of panzanella (simple, straightforward) or believe the traditional combination is a mere starting point, the result is a salad worthy of the incredible tomatoes coming in right now. 

Bones, 701 Grant St., Denver, 303-860-2929

Denver Bread Company, 3200 Irving St., Denver, 303-455-7194

Flame, 1 Vail Rd., Vail, 970-477-8650

Panzano, 909 17th St., Denver, 303-296-3525

Potager, 1109 Ogden St., Denver, 303-832-5788

The Kitchen, 1039 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-544-5973

Town, 348 Main St., Carbondale, 970-963-6328

Ya Ya’s Euro Bistro, 8310 E Belleview Ave., Greenwood Village, 303-741-1110

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