Tuscan summers are fiery.
They slowly take over the countryside: Fields and meadows turn yellow within the first days of scorching sun, and the air is filled with the smell of toasted wheat and dried mint. The hypnotic buzz of cicadas is the soundtrack for lazy afternoons, when you seek refuge inside the house, behind closed shutters and curtains, in the dark of the freshest room—bare feet, light linen, a hand fan as your best ally.
These are the days of effortless meals, when you mix and match ingredients from your pantry and fridge, rather than cooking a proper dinner.
A Perfect Pair
Prosciutto e melone is one of the most appreciated appetizers in local trattorias and sagras, the typical food festivals that pop up in small Italian towns during the good seasons. At home, it’s often a summer meal on its own: thin, salty slices of perfectly aged prosciutto draped over fat, sweet wedges of juicy cantaloupe.
Red, White, and Green
Along with prosciutto e melone, summer is the season for a simple caprese, a salad that is Italian in both its ingredients and their colors: red ripe tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil leaves.
Caprese is perhaps the dish that my mum has prepared most often in the summer, since I was a child. Sometimes, she would use oxheart tomatoes, large and fleshy, sometimes San Marzano, which I prefer when they are still slightly unripe. I also like to use tiny ciliegini, cherry tomatoes, or datterini, date tomatoes sweet as candy, in various colors, if possible: red, yellow, orange … they make such a colorful caprese.
It’s a family habit to use dried oregano in our caprese, along with the classic fresh basil. The oregano comes every year from the south of Italy, and it is intense and balsamic, dried by the southern sun.
Our growing awareness of the importance of mozzarella brought our caprese to a higher level. We used to move it directly from the fridge to the plate and cut it into ordinary, thick slices, to match the tomatoes. Now, we know how to turn the mozzarella into the protagonist of our dinner, to make it shine on our plates.
The mozzarella must be removed from the refrigerator at least one hour ahead of time, so that it can slowly come to room temperature. It will be softer, juicier, and with a more pronounced milky taste. Rather than slicing it, I prefer to tear the ball of mozzarella with my hands into small morsels to add to the tomatoes. The extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and oregano combine with the tomato juices to soak the mozzarella bites through, creating the perfect summer meal.
- 4 ripe oxheart tomatoes
- 12 ounces buffalo mozzarella, at room temperature
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- A few fresh basil leaves
Rinse the tomatoes and cut them into wedges, then arrange them in a large dish. Add the buffalo mozzarella, torn into morsels with your hands.
Season everything with your best extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried oregano, then add a few basil leaves.
Let sit for about 10 minutes and serve at room temperature.
Garden Party Pasta
Rice salads and pasta salads, which require only brief cooking, are another great example of effortless summer cooking.
Toss your favorite pasta or rice with canned tuna, hard boiled eggs, and mozzarella and tomatoes, fresh or sun-dried. Or opt for vegetables in oil, like carciofini (baby artichokes), or pickles, like a giardiniera. Add handfuls of herbs, such as basil, chives, and parsley. The dressing is usually very straightforward: salt, a few rounds of black pepper, good extra-virgin olive oil, and sometimes basil pesto or dried oregano.
You can prepare your pasta or rice salad in advance, then stash it in the fridge until dinner time. This way, the flavors have time to mingle, and you can simply spoon your meal out of a big shared bowl when the time comes.
It is perfect eaten al fresco under the olive trees, but it is just as good shared with your friends in a tiny apartment in a scorching hot city, as it will instantly transport you to an Italian garden party.
Pasta Salad With Tuna, Capers, and Fresh Herbs
- 12 ounces whole wheat pasta
- 1 bunch fresh parsley
- 1 bunch fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon pickled capers, drained
- 7 ounces good quality canned tuna, drained
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
Cook the pasta al dente according to the package instructions.
In the meantime, finely chop the parsley, basil, and capers. Collect them in a bowl and add the well-drained tuna, flaked with a fork.
Drain the pasta, pour it into the bowl, toss well, and end with a generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Add more basil and, if you like, some red pepper flakes to give an intriguing hint of flavor to your pasta.
Stash in the fridge for a few hours before serving.
A Tuscan Classic
Summer is also the time for panzanella, an iconic Tuscan dish, a zero-waste salad made with leftover bread and the best produce of the season.
Panzanella has been known since the time of Boccaccio (1313–1375), an illustrious Tuscan poet and scholar, as “pane lavato,” or “washed bread.” In the 16th century, the Renaissance painter Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano (1503–1572), known as Bronzino, immortalized the panzanella in his rhymes, describing a green panzanella made without tomato, which had just arrived from America and was still a rarity on common tables. The ingredients that made up his panzanella were just bread, onion, cucumber, purslane, and peppery rocket.
These days, panzanella is made in layers. The basic ingredients are unsalted Tuscan bread (better if a few days old), ripe tomatoes, cucumber, fresh onion, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, red wine vinegar, and basil. Then, as always happens, everyone adds and removes what they prefer.
There’s a difference in how we make panzanella in Tuscany and how it is commonly made abroad. Our panzanella is not a crunchy bread salad made with croutons.
Instead, the stale bread is soaked in water until it springs back to life, then squeezed out and crumbled into a serving bowl. Dressed with your best extra-virgin olive oil and a dash of red wine vinegar, the panzanella is soft, satisfying, slightly acidic, and so refreshing—the best example of effortless Tuscan summer cooking.
The key ingredient in panzanella is the bread. If you can not find bland, unsalted Tuscan bread, opt for a country bread, a few days old.
Serves 6 to 8
- 10 1/2 ounces stale Tuscan bread, a few days old
- 2 tomatoes, either an Italian heirloom variety, such as Florentine Costoluti, or beefsteak
- 1 cucumber
- 1 fresh onion
- A handful of fresh basil leaves
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Black pepper
Break up the bread into large pieces, place in a large bowl, and cover with cold water. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, finely slice the onion and soak it in cold water, to temper its strong taste and reduce its pungency.
Roughly chop the tomatoes. Peel and finely slice the cucumber.
After 10 minutes, when the bread is soft, drain and squeeze the bread to remove all excess water, then crumble it using your hands. There’s nothing worse than a too-watery panzanella, so just when you think you have squeezed it sufficiently, go ahead and do it one more time.
Collect the bread in a large bowl and dress it with the well-drained onion, chopped tomato, sliced cucumber, and fresh basil, torn roughly with your hands.
Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil, then pour in a small quantity of red wine vinegar.
Set aside for half an hour in the fridge; then it’s ready to be served.
All recipes by Giulia Scarpaleggia
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com