Italian Bread: A Culinary Journey through Italy’s Regional Specialities
“Bread is the first food to be put on the table, it is the basis of human history. Bread is sharing, it embodies the history of peoples, their customs and sacrality. It is a precious element that has the color of gold.” Antonio Cera couldn’t be more right.
The Italian baker from Puglia is the founder of an ecological movement that aims to resurrect Italy’s ancient bread-making techniques in an attempt to safeguard its culinary identity.
In fact, bread truly is a sacred Italian food. From its fundamental value in religious symbolism as the body of Christ to its historical importance, the history of bread is a wonderful embodiment of socio-cultural rituals and values, and of the development of societies throughout the centuries.
In Ancient Rome, for example, bread was generally made from spelt, whereas in Pompeii, towards the second half of the first century BC, there were two main types of bread: refined white bread, which was produced for the nobility, and wholemeal “brown bread” for the poor and the slaves.
There are more than 200 bread varieties in Italy.
Over the years, however, as a result of improved milling techniques and the genetic evolution of wheat, different types of bread-making techniques have developed, resulting in an enormously wide array of types and shapes.
There are more than 200 types of bread in Italy today! With each region having its own typical specialty. In the northern regions, bread is mainly made from soft wheat flour, while in some regions of central and southern Italy, durum wheat semolina is typically used.
This simple and humble food holds a foundational importance in every Italian household, either as an ever-present accompaniment to your meal or as the typical scarpetta to wipe clean any remains of that delicious tomato sauce on your plate.
So let’s set off on a journey around Italy to explore the types of bread we can find in each region!
1. Valle d’Aosta: La Micóoula
Starting in the far north-west of the country, we come across the small Aosta Valley region, known for its speciality La Micóoula.
This typical round loaf is made with rye and wheat and it distinguishes itself with the chestnuts, dried figs and sultanas that make it a delicious and versatile.
It is a bread to savor on it sown, as a dessert or topped with jam. Literally meaning “small and special bread” in the regional patois dialect, Micóoula is indeed made for special occasions such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
2. Piemonte: La Biova
The Piedmont region boasts a great variety of different types of bread, but the undisputed star is certainly the Biova.
Made with wheat flour, water, brewer’s yeast, and salt, the Biova presents a typical hard crust and is soft and airy inside. There are a multitude of varieties of Biova, such as the Micca and the Biovone, which tends to be larger in size.
3. Lombardia: La Michetta
Continuing east we come across Lombardy, a region famous for the Michetta, the typical star-shaped bread with puffed up parts similar to petals, which is why the loaf is also known as La Rosetta (the little rose).
This speciality from Milan is typically savored for a quick yet delicious bite on-the-go, with a slice of salame and Pecorino cheese.
4. Trentino-Alto Adige: Pan de Molche
East of Lombady, in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, the main speciality is Pan de Molche, a type of so-called “poor bread”, a term which refers to all types of unrefined bread.
Pan de Molche is originally from the upper Lake Garda area, which is also known for its excellent olive oil. In fact, this bread was typically made during the period when olives were pressed and the residue, the molche, was added to the bread mixture.
This resulted in a dark and deliciously olive-scented, bitter bread which was indeed very nutritious!
5. Veneto: Pan Biscotto
Pan biscotto is the traditional bread from Veneto, particularly famous in the Basso Vicentino and Polesine areas.
Historically, Pan Biscotto had an extremely long shelf life, which is why it was used for centuries as the farmers’ staple storage bread. The bread was in fact baked for as long as 40 hours, following the typical baking technique used for biscuits, hence the name meaning Biscuit Bread.
This long process allowed the product to be kept for up to six months!
6. Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Pan di Sorc
Pan di sorc is a sweet and spiced bread made from a mixture of maize flour (called sorc), rye, wheat and dried figs, with the addition, in some cases, of sultanas and fennel seed.
With a dark and fragrant crust and a characteristic aroma, and a taste that resembles polenta, this northern Italian speciality bears a strong transalpine influence, from the nomadic farmers who used to travel to the Hapsburg lands.
Pan di Sorc was traditionally eaten as a sweet bread, dunked in milk, but nowadays many people also savor it as an accompaniment to cold meats.
7. Liguria: La Focaccia
Who has never tried a delicious Focaccia bun at least once in their life? This typical speciality from Genova is probably the most renowned type of Italian bread and no wonder why the whole world loves it!
With a warm golden color, Focaccia can be made in a great variety of different ways: either thin and crunchy or with a softer dough that can be stuffed and garnished. Focaccia is typically enjoyed as an aperitivo, but, funnily enough, many people in Liguria love to dunk it in their cappuccino!
8. Emilia Romagna: Pane di Zucca
With a delicious soft and spongy texture and a mouth-watering sweet taste, this unusual brioche can be both enjoyed with jam or with a tasty slice of cheese to create an exceptional contrast of flavors!
9. Toscana: Pane Toscano o Pane Sciocco
Unlike much of the cuisine in Tuscany, the most renowned bread of the region is nothing like a tasty and flavorsome bread.
In fact, Pane Sciocco, literally means “foolish bread”, referring to the total absence of salt, the better for soaking up all the strong and salty flavors of this regional cuisine.
Devoid of salt but clearly not of recognition, Pane Toscano has been awarded the DOP, the Protected Designation of Origin mark, which makes it a fundamental regional speciality.
10. Umbria: Pan Nociato
The next region we come across is the beautifully hilly Umbria, where Pan nociato originates from. Though it is widespread throughout the region, it is especially a gastronomic symbol of Todi.
Traditionally the dough was made of the usual mixture of flour, water and yeast, to which grated pecorino di Norcia, olive oil and crushed walnuts were added, hence the name “nutted bread”. Many even like to create a Christmassy version by adding sultanas, cloves, and even a dash of red wine.
11. Marche: Crescia Maceratese
Crescia Maceratese is the traditional bread from Marche, particularly from the town of Macerata.
Historically bread was baked once or twice a week and the leftover dough was used to make this low and soft bread loaf which resembles a Focaccia bun. Bakers would typically press their fingers on the dough in order to create small dips so that the olive oil would be contained and soak in better. Many would also add rosemary to give it a wonderful aromatic scent!
12. Lazio: Pane Casereccio di Genzano
Continuing south we come across the Lazio region, where the delicious Pane Casereccio is made, exclusively in the area of Genzano. The bread is characterized by a dark crust and an ivory-coloured inside with a wonderful genuine aroma of cereal and bran.
The history of Pane Casareccio di Genzano is linked to the peasant’s tradition of baking bread in wood-fire ovens, already widespread in the 17th century, so much so that Prince Cesarini Sforza repeatedly offered it as a gift to the Pope.
According to the inhabitants of Genzano, what makes this bread so unique and inimitable is the use of traditional tools and techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation.
13. Abruzzo: Pane Senatore Cappelli
Bearing the name of a famous Italian senator from the early 1900s, this special bread is an iconic traditional speciality, with as much political importance as culinary. Senatore Cappelli was in fact responsible for artificially creating a special type of wheat, “il grano Cappelli”, with which this loaf is made.
Pane Senatore Cappelli is known to have highly antioxidant properties and contains great amounts of flavonoid, which reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. No wonder it is loved so much!
14. Molise: Pane di Farro Molisano
Delving further south we come across the small region of Molise, where the traditional Pane di Farro (barley bread) is made. With its rich and fertile lands washed by the Adriatic Sea, Molise is the perfect land for growing grains, amongst which is barley, used to make this regional speciality.
According to tradition, newlyweds would eat a loaf of barley bread the day before their wedding to ensure them happiness in their new married life.
15. Campania: Pane di Padula
South of Molise we come across the wonderful region of Campania. Here we find Padula, in the Vallo di Diano, which is not only home to one of the most beautiful and important Carthusian monasteries in Italy, but is also where this delicious bread is produced, with a mixture of soft and hard wheat flour, salt, natural yeast, and brewer’s yeast dissolved in very hot water.
Pane di Padula is also known as “The Bread of the Monks” as the monks of the Charterhouse of San Lorenzo, the largest monastic complex in southern Italy, fondly indulged in it as far back as the 16th Century.
16. Puglia: Pane di Altamura
Pane di Altamura is a simple yet delicious bread, largely made with re-milled durum wheat from the Alta Murgia area around Bari.
There are numerous written accounts of the origins of this particular bread: Pliny, a famous Roman philosopher for example, described it as “the most delicious bread in the world”, and many would undoubtedly still agree!
Pane di Altamura is at its best when cut into slices and seasoned with olive oil, salt, and fresh tomato, the essence of Italian cuisine.
17. Basilicata: Pane di Matera
Originating from the beautiful historic town of Matera, Pane di Matera is the most popular regional bread, and is made with ancient production techniques that involve the exclusive use of durum wheat semolina.
A symbol par excellence of the City of the Sassi, this PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) product perfectly embodies the products that the land of Basilicata has to offer: from the purity of the spring water to the quality of the Lucanian wheat, and the perfect cooking techniques that confer the crunchiness of the crust while leaving the inside beautifully soft.
18. Calabria: Pane con la Giuggiulena
South of Basilicata, in the beautiful region of Calabria, is where the deliciously nutty Pane con la Giuggiulena is made. The term giuggiulena is in fact the name that people in the province of Reggio Calabria use to refer to sesame, the main ingredient.
This bread is a precious culinary legacy of the Saracen domination that influenced this area between the 9th and 11th centuries AD.
19. Sicilia: Pane Nero di Castelvetrano
And now let’s delve into Sicily, the largest island in Italy, home to the “black bread” of Castelvetrano, or as they call it in their local dialect pani nìuru, a bread that descends from ancient tradition.
Originally produced in Castelvetrano, in the province of Trapani, this local speciality is made by mixing two types of semolina: Sicilian blond wheat semolina and durum wheat, which are both wholemeal and ground in natural stone mills.
20. Sardegna: Coccoi
Finally, we come to the beautiful island of Sardinia, where the Coccoi bread is made. Coccoi has a hard crust which is typically finely decorated with different tools and shaped into a crown, with many different ornaments.
It truly is an expression of the prestigious Sardinian art of baking, hence it is enjoyed for all major ceremonial events, such as weddings and religious festivities.