Traditional Panzanella suffers from unfortunate maladies. A) despite looking like a perfectly good Scrabble word you only get seven tiles. At the very best you might find “PAN” hovering near a triple word score but ppppfffft! “LLA” is never going to be open. Let’s just forget the “P_N” or other blanks to fill in. Even if you were to get the triple word score, P3 A1 N1 Z10 A1 N1 E1 L1 L1 A1 is worth 62 points plus the extra 50 for using all your letters. Impressive at 112 points, but it will never come about. You will just sit, passing for the perfect moment that never arrives. Better off playing small ball; Z10 A1 P3 or P3 A1 N1 E1 L1 are much more likely to score and keep you from getting caught with high value tiles at the end, the curse of big word adherents. B) It requires bread soaked in water. On purpose.
At my fingertips, Carla Capalbo of The Ultimate Italian Cookbook and (Santa) Marcella Hazan (H4 A1 Z10 A1 N1 if only proper names were allowed) of Essentials of Italian Cooking recommend soaking bread in water before mixing with fresh and springy vegetables. Capalbo uses tomatoes with red onion. Hazan uses capers and anchovies to dress things up. Both use wet bread and that seems to be the binding agent that keeps them a panzanella.
Wet bread is usually considered to be less than preferable. Not so in Italian bread salad. It’s like green pepper flavors in red wine. Taste green pepper in an Alexander Valley or Bordeaux offering and call it a flaw. Same thing in a Chilean merlot; distinctive of the region. We are all idiots to one degree or another.
I was lucky enough to be told that what I was eating was panzanella before I knew about tradition. Satterfield’s in Birmingham serves this on occasion with chicken to great results. At my house it is known as “bread with olive oil already inside” because six year old.
Start with a baguette or batard. I hate to be picky, but don’t deviate on bread. Cut it into one inch cubes and fry until golden in olive oil. Share with a kid and become a hero. Take left over cubes and toss in a bowl with deseeded tomato, blanched green beans, rough cut red onion, pitted olives, sliced cucumber, and a red wine vinaigrette.
Easy and impressive. Serve with chicken or tuna and a light rosé or Burgundy. There will be some who say they can serve this as a meal on it’s own. Smile, suffer them the assumption, but note their names lest they invite you to dinner – You might need to pack a Snickers and pee in their garden.