Everyone knows that Italy is famous for its variety of pasta (around 300 different types), but who would guess that there are at least 250 types of Italian bread? Each Italian region has its own baking traditions and each type of bread captures the social, economic, and cultural evolution of the area it comes from. Granted, Italians consider pizza as a type of bread, but still… Mamma mia! That’s a lot of dough!
In Italy, bread is a staple at every meal, and I know Italians who refuse to eat their pranzo (midday meal) without it. Despite bread always appearing on the dinner table, Italians eat less bread annually than other Europeans, coming in last at 41 kilograms (about 90 pounds) per year after Romania, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and France.
Like pizza, bread, like focaccia, are well-known and enjoyed outside of Italy. Others, like piadina and pane carasau, are just as delicious, but not as well known.
Between ancient Roman sites and Renaissance art museums, you will probably not have time to try all 250 types of bread, so here are seven popular types of bread that Italians love that you might like to enjoy. At the end of this list, you can find some tips about buying bread in Italy.
1. Pane Carasau
Pane carasau is an ancient bread dating back to 1000 B.C. Originating in the northern regions of Sardinia, pane carasau is an unleavened, round, flat-shaped bread. It was once the food of Sardinian shepherds and sailors because it keeps for a long time without losing its characteristic crunchiness. It’s tasty with Sardinian cheeses and ricotta. Pane carasau also acts as a kind of “plate” for the typical Sardinian dish pane frattau, a simple but delicious meal of tomato sauce, a poached egg, and some grated pecorino cheese.
Piadina is a very thin type of flatbread, kind of like a flour tortilla. Ideal for filling or as a wrap, the piadina was traditionally made by cooking the flat dough on a hot terracotta plate. Now it is more commonly made on metal hot plates. Originally hailing from Romagna, the bread was held as a valuable staple for peasants. These days, you can find piadinas in special piadina kiosks, which are filled with savory meats or cheeses.
Ciabatta has a porous center and crispy crust, making it the perfect bread to dip into dishes with a lot of sauce. My favorite way to eat ciabatta is to sprinkle the bread with virgin olive oil, but you can also use it to make sandwiches filled with lunch meat, like prosciutto or Parma ham.
The name ciabatta means “slipper” as the elongated, flat, oval-shaped bread resembles this footwear. Funny enough, sopping up the sauce left on your plate with bread is called “scarpetta” which means “little shoe.” So you enjoy every drop of sauce on your plate by using a “slipper” to do a “little shoe”! The word scarpetta comes from the fact that a shoe drags up what’s on the ground, which is what you are doing with the bread on your plate.
4. Pane di Farro
Central Italy – Toscana, Umbria, Marche
Farro is the Italian word for spelt, which is one of the world’s oldest known grains and native to Mesopotamia. During Roman times, it was the most widely eaten bread by both the nobility and plebeians. More recently, farro has become popular throughout Italy, not just because of its nutty flavor, but also because of its many health benefits. It is rich in fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But don’t let that put you off! Pane di farro is delicious with everything from sliced tomatoes and cheese to your favorite jam.
Grissini are breadsticks that tradition says were invented in the 1600s by the court cook of the Duke of Savoy. The duke’s son suffered from fevers when his doctor decided the only cure left was for his patient to eat well-cooked, crunchy breadsticks, instead of poorly baked bread. Amazingly, the little Duke was cured! Since then, these long sticks of Italian bread have always been popular, even with Napoleon, who created a courier service from Turin to Paris to deliver them to his court. Grissino are often seasoned with oregano, finocchio seeds, or pepperoncini flakes and are a great snack with a glass of wine before dinner.
6. Vastedda Or Guastedda
Vastedda or guastedda is the type of Sicilian focaccia of medieval origins, often stuffed with chunks of salami, diced fried bacon, and/or ricotta. In the spring, the bread is sprinkled with tender elderberry flowers. The ingredients are simple — durum wheat flour, natural or brewer’s yeast, water, salt, lard, milk, and eggs — but strictly speaking, it must be cooked in a wood-burning oven. The wood fire gives the bread its golden color and irresistible fragrance.
7. Pane Pugliese
Perhaps my favorite Italian bread is the crunchy-crusted pane, Pugliese. This delicious rustic sourdough bread has an airy texture and its long fermentation makes for a sweet, rich taste. Pane Pugliese is excellent for bruschetta — grilled bread traditionally rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt, and smothered in olive oil – another one of my favorites! But this bread is also delicious alongside any soup or stew.
Tips On Buying Bread In Italy
Finding most of these mouth-watering pieces of bread is fairly easy throughout the country. These days, Italians typically buy their daily portion of bread at the local supermarket. Many kinds of bread are available on supermarket shelves, but fresh bread is bought at a counter or a local bakery (panetteria). My friends in town have a monthly account with the local bakery. Their bread is delivered every other day to their front door. We also have Riccardo who arrives once a week in this truck laden with groceries, including fresh bread.
Bread is sold by the weight in kilos and most families count on about 0.5 kilo (about a pound) of bread for 2 people per day. Salted bread naturally lasts longer, but unsalted bread (which is typically Tuscan) goes better with salty foods like prosciutto.
The earlier you arrive in the morning, the more of a selection of bread you will have to choose from. Types of bread include integrale (whole wheat), cinque cereali (five types of grains), farro (spelt), and segale (rye). Pane fatto nel forno a legna is bread baked in a wood stove.
Feel free to ask the person serving you to cut the bread into smaller pieces — either in half or one-fourth. But don’t expect anyone to slice the loaf for you into individual portions.
Sometimes you need to take a number from a little ticket machine and wait your turn. If you forget, you might end up standing in line forever. Italians are very serious about their food purchases and without the ticket, you won’t easily get served, no matter how many people stream in after you.
If you are allergic to gluten, you can always look for pane senza glutine on supermarket shelves.
Italian bread is everything from sweet to savory, but always best when accompanying the delicious food that seems to be everywhere. From thick loaves to baton-like sticks, hard crusts to soft pizza bases, Italian bread is waiting to be discovered, delighted in, and devoured.
For more information on traveling to Italy, check out these articles: