Take a journey through the Bel Paese most delicious breads
Food is central to Italian culture. It’s part of our heritage and modus operandi, of our gregarious moments and everyday conversations (seriously: we can have hour-long debates about what we’re putting on our tables on any given day, and spend whole weeks planning menus for family meals or festive gatherings).
But food is also one of the most diverse aspects of the Bel Paese. Travel from region to region and from north to south, and you’ll encounter endless variations of a certain recipe; too many local snacks to count; and delicacies typical only of specific areas, seasons, and even villages.
Nowhere is that more evident than in our breads (pasta comes a close second). From thick and chewy to thin and crunchy, Italian doughs reflect the myriad ways we’re different yet fundamentally the same – and how we simply can’t live without our much beloved carbs.
Ready to take a flour-loaded journey through Italy with us? Here are five ‘bread-y’ staples to get you going.
Liguria and Focaccia Genovese
Golden and crispy, focaccia genovese (“a fügassa” in Genoese dialect) is essentially an institution in Liguria’s capital, Genoa. Locals love to start their mornings with it, dipping it in their cappuccino as a substitute for classic biscuits, though you’ll find it across cafes and bakeries throughout the day. Brushed with olive oil and coarse salt, it has to be high up to a finger – around 2cm – to be considered a good focaccia, and must show a balanced consistency between crunchiness and softness, friability and shine. Above all, it ought to never, ever be rubbery.
TRY IT AT: Marinetta dal 1946. A Genoa’s landmark (so to speak), this bakery has been around since 1946, opening its doors every morning at dawn to deliver fragrant and perfectly dense focaccia. Order it the classic way, which is plain or with onions, and prepare to find yourself addicted.
Emilia-Romagna and Piadina
Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli aptly described piadina (or, in his words, piada) as a food “almost as ancient as man,” and the “national bread of the Romagnoli.” He was right on point.
The thin, unleavened flatbread, usually made with white flour, lard or olive oil, salt and water, is a staple and symbol of Emilia-Romagna, with origins dating back to 1200 B.C. (yup, it’s that old!). Its popularity is easy to grasp: featuring simple ingredients typical of cucina povera, piadina has long been affordable – a street food ahead of its time – as well as versatile, making for fuss-free comfort food at its very best.
While it’s now ubiquitous across the country (and abroad), you’ll find its most authentic version all along the Adriatic coast, where brightly coloured piadinerie (literally, piadina stands) serve the flatbread fresh and hot, its wafting scent filling the air with promises of a delicious meal.
Its iterations are too many to list, but real piadina connoisseurs will tell you to go for the quintessential piada combo on your first order: Squacquerone cheese, prosciutto and arugula.
TRY IT AT: Casina del Bosco, a family-run kiosk that has been making piadine for over 25 years and is a beloved Rimini institution. Order from a variety of fillings, then grab a seat at one of its outdoor tables
Tuscany and Schiacciata
First things first: the schiacciata toscana is often referred to with different names. Depending on where you are, you’ll find it under ‘ciaccia’ (especially in Arezzo and Valdichiana), ‘schiaccia,’ ‘stiacciata’ or, in Florence, ‘schiacciata all’olio,’ to distinguish it from the Florentine schiacciata, which is actually a dessert. Like the piada, this crisp-edged flat dough originated as a typical peasants’ dish thanks to its humble ingredients – a basic mixture of flour, yeast, olive oil, water, and salt – and it’s now Tuscany’s most beloved bread, crisp and chewy in its consistency (the focaccia, on the other hand, is spongy and tall).
The name schiacciata – “squashed,” in Italian – derives from the way it is shaped: After the dough rises, bakers squash it into the pan with their hands before brushing it with olive oil, which gives it an almost cracker-like edge while keeping the interior chewy and full of air bubbles. Generous amounts of extra-virgin olive oil and flaky salt are added after baking for some extra grease and flavour, making this a perfect snack or appetiser to go with your aperitivo.
TRY IT AT: Forno Giotto Alimentari in Chiesanuova, a tiny village half an hour from Florence. The schiacciata here is freshly baked all day long, and amazing both plain and stuffed (try it with finocchiona salami). It’s got a loyal following too: Regardless of the day of the week, there’s always a line of people – including many Florentines –waiting for a slice of this tantalising bread.
Lazio and Pizza Bianca
Similar to the schiacciata for its looks and ingredients, pizza bianca is Lazio – and Rome in particular – in bread form. The Italian capital’s archetypal street food has been around since ancient Roman times, when it used to be paired with figs (something still very much done today) and eaten mid-morning as a snack. Different fillings have since been added to the ways you can enjoy this bready delight – mortadella being the most typical pairing – but the original recipe has remained pretty much unchanged. A good, authentic pizza bianca is generally characterised by a perfect crunch, and just the right amount of finger-licking saltiness, a less pronounced thickness and a slightly less oily dough compared to the schiacciata. Despite being referred to as pizza, it’s always served sans sauce or cheese, and it is topped instead with extra salt, olive oil and, sometimes, rosemary sprinkled on top.
TRY IT AT: Forno Campo de’ Fiori, in, you guessed it, Campo de’ Fiori. This long-standing bakery is an institution, and one of the city’s top spots when it comes to crunchy pizza bianca.
Sardinia and Pane Carasau
Commonly used in every corner of Sardinia, pane carasau – or pane carasatu, pane carasadu, pane fine, pane ‘e fresa or pane fatu in fresa – is a staple of the sunny island and, like its other counterparts, a pretty ancient food: historians have traced evidence of its existence to before 1000 B.C. Its name derives from the Sardinian verb carasare which means “to toast,” although in Italian it is referred to as carta da musica, meaning “sheet music,” because of its large and paper-thin shape, which is said to be so thin before cooking that a sheet of music can be read through it.
Its origins are rural: through the centuries, women customarily prepared it for their men working as shepherds in the Sardinian countryside, as pane carasau could be stored for a long period of time without losing its flavour and texture (if well preserved, it can last up to one year). Today, it’s typically paired with pecorino cheese and wine, consumed as it is, or softened with water to be used for the preparation of rolls stuffed with cold cuts and fresh cheese.
TRY IT AT: Kentos. This female-owned bakery in Orroli, south Sardinia, makes some of the best carasau there is, using only organic Sardinian durum wheat semolina, yeast, and a wood oven.