Pancotto (“cooked bread") is a great example of Italian cucina povera, made with a vegetable, its cooking liquid, and stale bread, flavored with garlic and chili pepper and enriched by extra virgin olive oil. I’ve had many versions in restaurants in Campania and Puglia, but the very best version is from Berardino Lombardo’s Agriturismo Il Contadino in Caianello, between Rome and Naples. Most pancotto is mushy, but Berardino’s has a crispy exterior. Cooking the bread cubes in plenty of extra virgin olive oil at the beginning and evaporating the vegetable broth at the end so that bread and vegetable brown is what makes Berardino’s pancotto so special. A perfect non-stick pan is essential to succeed with this dish.
1 pound turnip greens, broccoli rabe, or wild greens
1/2 cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil (you know what I mean), and more to drizzle
4 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 dried chili pepper, cut in half
4 cups cubed (1/2” cubes) stale bread (bread should be rustic, water based, not fat-enriched)
Coarse and fine sea salt, to taste
Bring a large pot with at least 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil. While waiting for the water to boil clean the greens, eliminating tough stems that will never become tender. Add 4 tablespoons coarse sea salt to the boiling water, add greens, and cook for 5 minutes or until tender—a central leaf rib will be soft when pinched. Remove greens to a colander, cool under running cold water, squeeze out excess water, and coarsely chop. This can be done in advance. Save the cooking water.
Bring the cooking water to a boil. Heat 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet, add garlic and chili pepper and sauté until garlic barely begins to brown. Remove garlic and chili pepper from oil, add the bread cubes add cook until they barely begin to color. Add the chopped greens, mix well, add 1 cup cooking water, and sauté over highest heat until bread absorbs the liquid.
Add more reserved cooking water, 1/2 cup at a time, until cubes begin to break up but isn't a puree. When all liquid has evaporated, the pancotto will begin to brown and you’ll hear the bread sizzling. Listen. This step makes all the difference. Stir every few minutes to unevenly brown the bread. Or flip if you can. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
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