Discover the fascinating universe of Italian bread with ScuolaScuola
Bread is much more than food: thanks to its simple ingredients and the nourishment it provides, it is a staple of the human diet across many cultures, with an ancient history dating back to the Neolithic period, charged with symbolic and ritual meanings. It has been prepared in thousands of different ways for thousands of years, in different parts of the world. On a smaller scale, Italy provides a perfect example of this diversity. Read on to discover more about it.
Bread and Italy: a never-ending love story
The origins of bread making in Italy go far back in time. In ancient Rome, bread played such an essential role, both for nutrition and religion, that bakers who prepared it were considered elevated members of society, and ovens were often built right in temples. Ovens preserved their popularity throughout the centuries, contributing to the abundance of bread production in Italy, where, unlike other countries, small brick or stone ovens were typically owned by families who were allowed to bake their own bread.
If you have ever been to Italy, you know that one of the first thing the waiter brings you at the restaurant is a basket of bread, focaccia, piadina, grissini, and the list goes on. And Italians are quite happy with it as they use bread to accompany almost any dish (except pasta, rice, dessert) or eat it plain, while they are waiting for their meal. We do not eat bread with pasta but, in informal contexts, when a delicious layer of sauce still lies on the plate, we can’t help but fare la scarpetta – dipping a piece of mollica (the soft part of a loaf) in the sauce.
Some types of Italian bread
No matter the ingredients, shape or name, bread is a must on every Italian table. Today, more than 250 different types of bread are made all over the country, and every region has its traditional varieties. In Northern Italy, soft wheat flour is more common, but in Lombardy you may also find it mixed with rice flour and in Emilia Romagna with cornmeal. Lombardy is also the homeland of the michetta, a round and airy bread resembling a rose, dating back to the period of the Austrian rule, known in Bergamo as stellina and with the name rosetta in the rest of Italy. The ciabatta is a relatively new kind of bread invented in Veneto in 1982 as a response to the rising popularity of French baguette. In the central regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche, you will find pane sciocco (or pane Toscano), baked without salt since the Middle Ages – ideal to accompany cold cuts and strong cheeses.
In the South, bread tradition revolves around durum wheat. Among the most popular bread varieties from Southern Italy, now available in any Italian bakery, we find pane pugliese, a porous rustic bread from the 15th century, characterized by a crunchy crust and an airy texture. It is perfect for bruschette – grilled slices of bread with olive oil, salt, fresh tomato, basil – and to accompany soups and stews.
Many types of bread are produced in Sardinia, but the most famous, made throughout the island, is pane carasau, meaning ‘toasted bread’, also known as carta da musica because of its resemblance with old parchment sheet, traditionally used for sacred music. It is a very thin and crunchy flatbread whose origins have been traced to the Nuragic Age, circa 1900-730 BC.
Every language reflects its culture and the way a society perceives the world. Therefore, it is no wonder that Italian is rich in idioms related to bread. Read our list of expressions and try to use some of them to sound like an Italian!
Accontentarsi delle briciole: to settle for crumbs.
Andar via come il pane (to sell like bread): “to sell like hot cakes”. Also used for people to say that they are quite popular (also ironically).
Chi ha il pane non ha i denti, chi ha i denti non ha il pane (he who has bread has no teeth, and who has teeth has no bread): this saying is used when someone has the will to do something but lacks a medium, and vice versa.
Dire pane al pane e vino al vino (to say that bread is bread and wine is wine): to speak frankly; it is the Italian version of “to call a spade a spade”.
Essere buono come il pane (to be as good as bread) or essere un pezzo di pane (to be a piece of bread): to have a heart of gold, to be as good as gold.
Essere pane per i denti di qualcuno (to be bread for one’s teeth): we use this expression when we know we can handle a situation.
Mangiare il pane a ufo or mangiare il pane a tradimento: these are used to describe lazy people who live off others.
Mangiare pane e volpe (to eat bread and fox): a sarcastic remark about someone who is less cunning than a fox.