Un Pezzo di Pane
A good person, a generous soul, someone as good and wholesome as a piece of bread.
My friend Loredana is un pezzo di pane. I heard this expression a long time ago, when I first arrived in Italy, and I instantly wrote it on a Post-It and stuck it to my desk, the way I do with every word/phrase I hear in Italian and want never to forget. I love the way the language is peppered with aphorisms relating to food; it gives someone like me – who views the world through an edible lens – great joy.
I met Loredana on the stairs of my palazzo. I was on my way to school (late, as usual) and she was cleaning the stairs furiously (an unforgiving pale tile) and grumbling loudly to herself. We exchanged greetings.
‘You live in this flat then’, she said.
‘But you’re not from here’. It wasn’t a question.
‘No. I’m English’
‘Si vede!’ (Hard to translate, this roughly means – ‘that’s obvious!’)
She told me that her daughter lived in England, in Cambridge, and was married to an English man, Steven Black. She showed me a photo. Steven Black smiled out of it; pale, blue-eyed, sandy-haired. Glasses and a gentle, almost apologetic smile. An English man.
‘You remind me of him’.
The next time we met (Loredana cleans the communal palazzo stairs every Tuesday) she brought me a tea mug that Steven had given her. On the base of it was written a name I knew as well as my own. Sainsburys.
‘For you’, she said. ‘To drink your tea. I know how you English love your tea!’
I instantly knew we were going to be friends.
That was two years ago now, and I have since moved house from the palazzo (this makes it sound very grand but is in fact just a standard block of flats built in the late 50’s/60’s) into my little apartment in campagna, rented from my dottoressa who is also one of my English students. Loredana helped me move house (she has a beaten-up old pick-up truck she uses for carting wood around. Loredana has about 10 different jobs and appears never to rest. She says she prefers it that way. She says resting makes you lazy. She cuts and sells firewood in the winter, gathers Mirto - myrtle berries used to make the famous Sardinian liqueur - in the autumn, cleans houses and palazzi all year round, nurses elderly people, irons, cooks, etc).
I moved into this apartment a year ago this week, we spent the morning unpacking the truck and then Loredana offered to make us lunch. I didn’t have much for her to work with; some old bread leftover and transported inside the bread bin; eggs, a bag of grated parmesan, a tin of tomatoes.
‘Let me show you a dish that I think you will like’, said Loredana, smiling wryly. She knows my (simple) tastes pretty well by now. ‘Real cucina povera. Semplicissima’.
She clattered about my new kitchen, talking me through the recipe (of course it’s not really a recipe as she does it all by eye, but I’ll try to do Tablespoons to make your lives easier). Polpette di Pane al Sugo. Meatballs made of bread. No meat involved - meat is expensive, a luxury - just bread, cheese and eggs shaped into balls and cooked in a tomato sauce.
We ate in silence, our plates scraped clean. The dish was simple, perfect.
As it is my one year anniversary here in this flat, I decided to make this dish. Because of Covid I can’t make it with Loredana, but I call her anyway and put her on speakerphone as I begin preparing.
‘What do you want a recipe for’ she tuts. ‘It’s not a recipe, it’s just throwing things in a bowl!’
‘I know’, I say, ‘But it’s delicious and people might want to recreate it at home in England’. I am poised hopefully with pen and paper, eager to hear precise measurements.
‘Well make a paste with the eggs and cheese and breadcrumbs, not too wet or the balls will be ugly. Make a sauce and there it is’.
I laugh, ‘Thank you, Lore’.
‘For what? Leti, make me a website so I can write recipes for the English, will you?’ She chuckles to herself and rings off.
Perhaps it is just because she made it for me, perhaps it is just because I love her, or perhaps it really is a phenomenal dish. I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves.
Bread Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
This recipe use a mixture of torn bread from the interior of a (white) loaf known as La Mollica and what in Italy is known as Pane Grattugiato (a bone-dry, ready-made fine breadcrumb which you can buy easily in shops). The Mollica soaked in milk makes the finished balls a little more tender. You can use all Mollica or all Pane Grattugiato depending what you have at home, just be aware that the texture of the balls will vary depending on how moist your bread is. The finished paste needs to be workable in your hands, so about the texture of a cookie dough, slightly sticky but able to hold its shape.
4 tbsp grated parmesan
50g white bread (from the inside of a white loaf)
60ml whole milk
4-6 tbsp pane grattugiato (or very dry white breadcrumbs)
For the sauce:
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (one you use for cooking)
1 clove garlic, bashed
1 x 400g tin of peeled tomatoes
Basil leaves (optional)
Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk them with a fork. Add a pinch of salt and the grated cheese and stir. Soak the white bread in the milk until it has absorbed all the liquid. Using your hands break it up in your fingers, squeezing it to break it into tiny pieces. Add it to the egg and cheese mix and mix well. Now add the dry breadcrumbs (pane grattugiato), starting with 4 tablespoons, stirring all the time. You are aiming for a smooth, non-sticky paste that you can roll easily in your hands. If the paste looks too wet, add the remaining breadcrumbs and stir.
Once you have a paste, makes balls in your hands, roughly the size of a golfball.
Set them aside and make the sauce.
Pass the tomatoes through a mouli (this removes the bitter seeds) or alternatively you can use passata (this has already been passed).
Heat the oil in a deep saute pan and saute the garlic for a minute or two until it just begins to turn golden. Remove it and discard.
Add the passed tomatoes and simmer on a low heat for around 15-20 minutes, until the sauce has reduced to about half its original volume. Season with salt, then add the bread balls and cover with a lid. Poach over a low heat for around 15 minutes.
Serve, with some torn basil leaves if you have them.