Heirloom tomatoes play the starring role in this classic, fresh summer salad.
Ciccio, Yountville, Calif.
For chef Polly Lappetito, nothing says summer like heirloom tomatoes. “They are my favorite ingredient of the season. They almost have to be,” she says with a laugh. “They are just so abundant. In California, the quality is unbelievable.”
She should know. As chef of Ciccio restaurant (6770 Washington St., 707-945-1000, ciccionapavalley.com), Lappetito has the luxury of using tomatoes and other vegetables picked fresh from the sprawling Altamura family ranch. The family owns not only an eponymous vineyard and winery, but also the restaurant.
Lappetito likes to showcase those stellar tomatoes in a classic panzanella salad. The timeless Tuscan dish was a runaway hit on the menu last summer at Ciccio, as well as at the Greystone Restaurant run by the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, where she was chef for more than a decade. She also often makes it at home for friends and family when the temperatures soar.
The dish speaks to her philosophy that less is more. At Ciccio, she’s all about home-style Italian food that makes the most of a handful of key ingredients. Three or four different varieties of tomatoes—red, orange, green, striped, or yellow ones—add flavor and eye appeal to this rustic, peasant salad that makes use of leftover bread and pantry staples such as good olive oil and red wine vinegar. It’s also a dish that lends itself to tinkering. Add more cucumbers if you like. Or even capers and anchovies. True to form, Lappetito keeps to this simple recipe because it shows off tomatoes so splendidly.
“What I love most is when the bread kind of gets soggy and soaks up all that oil, vinegar, and tomato juices,” she says. “I almost like it better the next day, chilled, too, when the bread gets thoroughly saturated.”
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Ciccio Panzanella Salad
(Serves 6 as a first course)
½ day-old baguette (or similar type bread), about ¾-inch dice
2 large heirloom tomatoes, diced
1 English cucumber, peeled (seeded or not) and diced large
1 green bell pepper, diced large
1 small red onion, julienned
¾ cup good quality olive oil, or to taste
¼ cup red wine vinegar, or to taste
Salt and pepper
1 bunch basil leaves, picked
½ cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
Dice the bread and let it sit out the night before you plan to make the salad. Alternatively, if starting with fresh bread, dice, place on a baking sheet, and bake in a 300°F oven for about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, and red onion. Add the oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and toss. Allow vegetables to marinate for about 10 minutes.
Just before serving, toss in the dried bread. With your hands, tear the basil leaves into about ½-inch pieces and add to the salad. Add the Parmigiano, and combine everything well. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar, then serve.
Photography by Helynn Ospina
This article was first published in June 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.