A common question people have on our tour of Little Italy in the Bronx is about the dried biscuits in the case at Addeo Bakers. Guests often assume they are some sort of dried out bagel.
These round, hard biscuits also called either freselle or pane biscottato and they are not stale as they might appear, but twice baked. High quality, well-made bread goes stale quickly, but freselle, only fifty cents a piece, can live in your cupboards for months. Simply run them under your water tap for 2-3 seconds, then pile a tomato salad on top. The oil and juice from the tomatoes will seep into the biscuit, crumbling the bread rather than making it mushy. Think of it like a panzanella salad without needing to fry the bread.
Freselle are ideal for a quick lunch or light dinner. If you’re hosting a summer party, lay them out on a table for guests. The longer they rest, the softer the biscuit will become. You could also place freselle in the bottom of a bowl of soup.
In Cilento, dried biscuits are used to make a bread salad called Aquasale, a name which reveals the clever origins of these biscuits. Women in Southern Italian villages across coastal Campania, Puglia and Calabria would twice bake halves of bread so that their husbands could take them along on their fishing boats. The biscuits were easily carried and then when it was time to eat, they could simply dip them in the salty sea. Acquasale, of course means saltwater.
Acquasale is served for lunch at the lovely restaurant at Tenuta Vannulo, a buffalo mozzarella farm in Capaccio, widely regarded as Italy’s very best. Their attention to detail is peerless and no less so in the dining room where a simple lunch is an artistic expression of the place.
The first plates put down in front of you are three pieces of their homemade cheeses. The plates are white and the linen are a very light beige. A few minutes later plates of green lettuce are placed, adding the first splash of color to the table. Next, plates of the Aquasale are join the spread, now adding red tomatoes and sequentially brightening the meal. Finally a plate of traditionally cooked greens lands and it become clear why people in this part of Italy live such long, healthy lives.
Freselle from Italy can be purchased online though if you're in New York, you must stock up on them from Addeo Bakers, where bread ovens have been making simple and perfect bread and nothing else since the 1930s. The Addeo family are also from Campania. This recipe for Acquasale comes from Arthur Schwartz's cookbook "The Southern Italian Table." Arthur, like me, also prefers whole wheat to white in this case.
Acquasale: Bread and Tomato Salad
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
4 to 6 whole grain freselle or oven-dried whole grain country-style bread
1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
1 recipe tomato Salad, the tomatoes sliced or diced (see below)
Fresh basil or flat leaf parsley leaves, torn or shredded
In a medium bowl, make a saltwater bath by dissolving the salt in the water. Dip the pane freselle very briefly, just a few seconds, into the salted water, to soften just the surface. The bread will continue to soften as it stands. In addition, you will be adding moisture with vinegar, and you will be topping it with juicy tomatoes. It should not end up mushy.
Depending on whether you are making a composed salad or a tossed once, either arrange the freselle or dried bread slices on a platter or break them up into approximately 1 1/2-to 2-inch chunks and place them into a serving bowl. Sprinkle the vinegar over the bread.
If using sliced tomatoes, arrange them over the whole bread on the platter, then pour on their juices and oil. For a tossed salad, put the tomato salad in the bowl with the broken bread. Garnish or toss well with some additional fresh basil or parsley leaves. Serve immediately.
About 2 pounds ripe salad tomatoes, cut into 1/2-to 1-inch chunks (about 4 cups)
1 garlic clove, slightly smashed or cut in half lengthwise, or minced and sliced
6-8 leaves fresh basil or mint, torn or coursely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt, ore more to taste
Several twists of the peppermill
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or slightly more
Put the tomatoes in a serving bowl. Add the garlic, herb, salt, pepper and olive oil. toss well. Let stand a few minutes before serving.