When I think of pappa al pomodoro, I think of my dad. He’s the reason I tried the dish in the first place, while I was a college student studying abroad in Florence, Italy. Dad had flown in to visit, and one night, after hours of exploring the city, the two of us sat down at a cozy trattoria in the Piazza Santa Croce. He spotted a dish on the menu starring two of his favorite foods—bread and tomatoes—and ordered it on a whim.
I was skeptical of this choice. All semester long, I had relentlessly pursued a goal of eating as much fresh pasta as possible, and the humble bowl of ruddy porridge that arrived at our table was a marked departure from that diet. But at my dad’s urging, I helped myself to a spoonful. It was velvety and hearty, yet lively and fresh, and I was an instant convert. For the rest of his trip—and the rest of my semester—whenever I spotted the words “pappa al pomodoro” on a menu, it was a must-order.
In my recipe for the rustic dish, I wanted to capture the stunning interplay of ingredients that captured my heart years ago: the synergy of garlic and ripened-to-bursting tomatoes, the nourishing consistency, the fruity, spicy slick of olive oil on top. And as a tribute to pappa al pomodoro’s charming simplicity, I wanted to invoke some test kitchen know-how to make this undemanding recipe even more streamlined.
Viva La Pappa!
Pappa al pomodoro gained Italy-wide fame when it was featured in the early 1900s Italian novel Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca by Luigi Bertelli. In it, a rebellious preteen ignites a revolution when he demands his school serve the students comforting, cozy pappa al pomodoro instead of bland soup. When the series became a television show in the 1960s, the song “Viva La Pappa col Pomodoro,” sung by the show’s lead, Rita Pavone, became a hit. “Hooray for the pappa with tomatoes!” she sings. “Hooray for the pappa that is a masterpiece!”
Pappa al pomodoro is a resourceful dish. Like the other recipes of rural Italy’s cucina povera tradition, it originated as a way to make use of scraps—in this case, stale bread. Local variations exist, but the core formula couldn’t be simpler: Heat garlic in a glug of olive oil; add tomatoes, bread, and broth or water; and cook until the bread has soaked up most of the liquid and the tomatoes have broken down. Serve with more EVOO, fresh basil, and/or Parmesan cheese.
I wanted this recipe to be the destination for my ripest tomatoes, the brightest and sweetest specimens from the garden that are engorged with juices. I was adamant about retaining the fruits’ seeds and gel—the gel is the most flavorful, glutamate-rich part of the tomato, and the seeds are both texturally benign and flavorless (not bitter, as some believe).
The tomatoes’ skins, however, proved unpleasant and distracting. Peeling the fruit was an option, but grating, one of our favorite tomato preparation techniques, would be even easier. After halving the tomatoes through the equator to expose the flesh, I rubbed the cut sides on the large holes of a box grater, quickly separating the fruit from its skin and reducing 3 pounds to 4 cups of pure tomato pulp.
Technique: Grating is Great
We frequently find ourselves pulling out the box grater for soup, sauce, and braise recipes that call for full-bodied fresh tomato pulp. Halving the fruit through its equator and rubbing the cut surfaces on the grater’s large holes quickly reduces it to a glistening, skin-free puree akin to what you’d get with a food mill—but with far easier cleanup.
Consistency Is Key
Pappa al pomodoro is often—but not quite accurately—referred to as soup. “It’s really difficult to describe!” Professor Karima Moyer-Nocchi, culinary historian, laughed during our discussion of the dish. In Italy, she explained, a “pappa” is a soft, comforting food you’d give to a child. “It should be eaten with a spoon, but it’s not soup,” she said. Think of pasta e ceci or ribollita, and you’re on the right track.
Bread is key to pappa al pomodoro’s elusive texture. I opted to work with a chewy country-style loaf—similar to the rustic bread traditionally used in Tuscany—which had a not-too-tough crust and would be absorbent enough to soak up the pappa’s liquid. Stale bread was originally used out of necessity, which makes sense if you already have some on hand. But I wondered if a fresh loaf would work just as well—stale bread seems to be dry, but it is actually just retrograded, meaning the loaf’s moisture is trapped in its starch crystals. Indeed, fresh and stale bread performed the same in a side-by-side test, as heating stale bread frees the trapped water.
Switching Up a Key Component: Sliced Bread That’s Fresh, Not Stale
Many Italian soup, stew, and porridge recipes rely on cubes of stale bread as a thickener. We made a couple of adjustments to the technique in this recipe. First, we tested fresh and stale bread side-by-side and discovered that fresh bread worked just as well. And instead of cubes, we opted for thin slices, which soften faster and more evenly and are easier to submerge in the pappa’s liquid (as a bonus, we didn’t need to remove the crusts).
It took substantial stirring to make sure that the bread cubes were all submerged in the pot, and they didn’t always soak evenly, so I tried a second shortcut: slicing (almost shaving) the bread very thin rather than cubing it. The slices fit neatly into the pot and, as a bonus, they softened faster and more consistently because they had more surface area exposed to the liquid. Plus, there was no need to remove the crusts; the thin slivers provided a subtle, welcome chewiness.
To put the dish together, I combined just over ⅓ cup of extra-virgin olive oil (the only source of fat; it tempered the tomatoes’ acidity and rounded out the flavors) and a few sliced garlic cloves in a large Dutch oven. When the garlic cloves were golden at the edges, I added my tomato pulp, salt, pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes, the sliced bread, and a couple basil sprigs. I tested batches with no added liquid, with broth, and with water, and ultimately landed on adding 2 cups of water—without any liquid, the dish was too dry, and broth competed with the tomato flavor.
After all the bread was moistened, I brought it to a boil before cooking the pappa, covered, at a rapid simmer. The aggressive cooking ensured that the bread broke down quickly, and the covered pot minimized evaporation, keeping my desired ratio of liquid to bread intact. Every once in a while I’d stir and mash the bread to help it along, watching as the slices puffed and swelled before collapsing into the tomatoes. It took only 15 minutes for the bread to completely soften. The result: a vibrant, homogenous, but not totally smooth mixture, with a thickened but still spoonable consistency.
I removed the basil sprigs and served myself a bowl, drizzling more olive oil over the top so that it glistened and sprinkling on some fresh chopped basil. I relished the first spoonful of pappa just as I did during that dinner in Florence. The dish was luscious, tomato-bright, and belly‑warming—as comforting as a visit from a parent.