Caprese and Panzanella Salads with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil
Caprese and Panzanella Salads are what Italians make with their fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and basil for a summer salad treat!
My Italian-American Gardening Family
Growing up as I did with two Italian-American parents means that to me, summertime will always be the time for gardening—and enjoying the fresh vegetables and fruits of that garden!
Both sides of my Italian family have established summer vegetable gardens here in America. My grandfather was a master gardener, and used knowledge he brought over from Sicily to create his perfect garden in a very small patch of land in Brooklyn, New York. As a small child, I knew that my fondest memories of summer would begin as I opened the large, decorative, black iron gate to enter what to me was a miraculous place – my grandparent’s a two story attached brick building that had my grandfather’s grape vines growing happily along the only free side. Out back, there was a small cement landing where the family gathered amid large decorative clay pots of herbs, with a pergola for the ripened grapes to hang from and provide shade, of course!
The rest of my grandfather’s yard was dedicated to all kinds of vegetables and fruits, perfectly staked in neat rows so that no space was lost on his small plot of land. I loved picking the perfectly red, vine-ripened tomatoes, green peppers and fresh, soft purple figs to take home. Yes, my grandfather even managed to keep fig trees alive during the cold NYC winters by bundling the branches up a pail and covering them with blankets, just so we could enjoy baskets of fresh figs for the summer. And enjoy them we did!
While my grandfather was busy gardening, my grandmother was busy in the kitchen! She created wonderful tomato salads for summertime with our fresh tomatoes and our favorite herb—basil, with its leaves freshly pinched off right from the stem of the plant. Even today, the women in my family keep a small pot or glass with water by the kitchen window with cuttings of fresh basil ready to make a cool tomato Caprese salad or a Panzanella salad for lunch.
Caprese and Panzanella Salads
Making Caprese and Panzanella salads entails following a couple of simple methods, using whatever you have on hand, rather than following a strict recipe step by step. However, it is best to come as close as possible to the recommended ingredients, as the ingredients themselves will be the stars of each dish.
For the most mouth-watering Caprese salad imaginable, use fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and soft, fresh buffalo mozzarella. In fact, do not make this salad if you do not have a soft, buffalo mozzarella, as this is the mozzarella that is used in the island of Capri, just outside Naples, where the salad originated. The hard mozzarella is for cooking, as it melts easily; it is too rubbery to be eaten with the soft, vine-ripened tomatoes and will not meld with the tomato juices and olive oil properly.
Coarse sea salt adds extra flavor to the tomatoes and will draw out their juices to meld with the olive oil for the dressing. Top all with a generous drizzle of your favorite pungent or fruity, extra-virgin olive oil from Italy, rather than the a more bland olive oil that you would use for cooking on the stove top.
A note about extra-virgin olive oils: A truly fresh extra-virgin olive oil will have a bit of a peppery flavor. Most olive oils sold in the US are old enough to have lost this peppery overtone, but will retain varying degrees of fruitiness and grassiness. Taste a few first press, 100% extra-virgin olive oils from different regions of Italy and you will be surprised at the nuances in flavor each brings!
For Panzanella salad, which probably originated as a clever way to use up day-old, stale bread with red onion for flavor, be sure to use a crusty loaf of good* Italian bread that is at least two days old and has dried out and hardened. Bread that has become stale naturally will need to be sprinkled with water to soften a bit prior to making this salad. Place the bread in a small bowl and sprinkle it with water the morning before you are planning to make the salad. The end result should not leave the bread mushy; the bread should spring back to life after the water is added if you are truly working with real Italian bread. If the crust is still too hard, it can be removed. Remember that the bread will continue to soften when it is combined with the vinegar and tomato juice when you make the salad.
If you want to make Panzanella salad with fresh Italian bread, you can always cut it into slices and dry it out in the oven just enough to be crunchy, or even add a bit of olive oil and brown it a bit to make croutons.
Panzanella salad originally did not contain mozzarella, but I like to include buffalo mozzerella in small pieces (bocconcini are nice), even though this is not traditional.
And, of course, large, sweet, fresh basil leaves from the garden are an essential ingredient for both Caprese and Panzanella salads!
But, whatever ingredients you have on hand, I’m sure you will enjoy these simple and refreshing tomato and basil salads on a hot summer day! -Kathyn Occhipinti
*Good Italian bread means Italian bread made in a bakery with the correct flour and cooked so that it has the proper, crunchy crust and soft but chewy texture. Only bread that has a good texture to begin with will “spring back” to life when you sprinkle it with water! Do not attempt Panzanella salad with cheap, grocery store bread labeled “Italian bread,” which will usually have a very soft grain and often even a soft crust and turn to mush when moistened again with water. And of course, no American “white bread” please!
3 large, vine-ripened tomatoes,
(each a different color to add interest;
heirloom tomatoes if desired)
Fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced
Large, whole, freshly picked basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil from Italy
In an individual or large dish, create colorful layers of tomato slices (sprinkled with sea salt), mozzarella slices, and basil leaves.
If making in a large plate of Caprese salad for a crowd, have the tomato and mozzarella slices lengthwise once they are assembled and place a piece of mozzarella in the center to create a “flower” pattern, as in the picture above. Decorate with extra basil.
Let sit for about 15 minutes for the tomato juices to develop. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
Serve with Italian bread to mop up the tomato juices and enjoy!
Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see me actively making a Caprese salad that can be shared by two people. Remember, the correct choice of ingredients is the key to this simple “salad. A touch of sea-salt to bring the juices out of the tomatoes that provide the acid for the “vinaigrette” and a drizzle of your favorite extra-virgin olive oil makes an exquisite summertime treat!
Dry Italian bread, cubed, or large croutons
Sprinkle the dried Italian bread with water to soften
(see comments about the proper bread to use above)
1-2 large, vine-ripened tomato, cut into small wedges
or several cherry tomatoes, halved
sprinkle lightly with sea salt
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly into crescents
Extra-virgin Italian olive oil
Italian red wine vinegar
Mozzarella, preferably soft, cubed or small bocconcini (optional)
Large, freshly picked basil leaves, hand torn
In a large dish, combine small wedges of fresh tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes and dry Italian bread (as pre-processed as above) and red onions.
Drizzle on extra virgin Italian olive oil and red wine vinegar and combine. Make sure the bread has softened enough to be edible. If not, you may want to let the ingredients sit for a bit before finishing the salad.
Then add the optional mozzarella and torn basil leaves.
Taste and drizzle with extra olive oil and vinegar if needed.
Mix again gently to combine all and enjoy!
— by Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Caprese and Panzanella Salads with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil