La Ribollita…this dish has been haunting me the last few months as I have been trying in every way to understand it. Before I get too wordy, let me explain what “ribollita” is for those who may not know.
Ri-Bollita literally means -re-boiled. You may see it on an English menu’ boasting “re-boiled bread soup.” It is almost impossible to translate this dish while making it sound appetizing to the foreign masses.
In Tuscany’s “la cucina povera” peasant cuisine, which I adore, is based on not leaving any scrap behind. Tuscan bread is made without salt, for a slew of historical legends (feuds between port towns, high salt taxes, etc) and as a result it goes stale quicker than salted bread. In order to not toss out unused bread, it was then re-purposed to many iconic dishes we eat today such as Panzanella. Leftover bread gets cooked with what seems like the kitchen sink: carrots, beans, onions, garlic, a bit of tomato, kale, beans, cabbage, more greens, etc. All things found easily in the Tuscan garden.
This is a poor dish that packs a caloric punch, another requirement for la cucina povera (poor cuisine). Years later after being at what seemed rock bottom, Tuscans still eat saltless bread and fiber rich peasant foods as an ode to tradition and in my opinion, it serves us as a humble reminder of a scarce past. Something that Americans can relate to with canned, pre-made foods in war times.
I wanted to understand this dish, I wanted to see who made it and who did it well. I almost felt it my duty as someone who does food tours in Florence to get to the bottom of this soup, so iconic to Tuscany’s culinary identity.
In the middle of my search, I decided to make it myself. During the whole process, I sneakily brought it up in conversations with fellow culinarian colleagues, trusted farmers and chefs to understand their thoughts on the matter. It may sound extremely geeky to be so engulfed with just one singular dish, but la ribollita has a legacy that deserves to be understood.
I was surprised to learn some of the chefs I most admire hadn’t yet made la ribollita. They gave me general tips from their culinary knowledge vault, but could only recommend published recipes. The entire process left me feeling humbled on how difficult something simple could be.
In making la ribollita, I sadly realized how detached we are from home cooking (unless it’s something social-media worthy or quick/easy) and detached from the journey itself.
And how isolated we are in cities where we live among thousands and dine in the direct company with few. I spent a whole day working on this dish, and many hours talking to people, gleaning little tricks and secrets (like leftover rinds from Prosciutto.) I appreciate this dish takes several steps, involving special care.
Ribollita cooking tips I found useful:
* When cooking the white beans, don’t cook on boiling heat. They should cook gradually over a steady simmer rather than a heated boil. Otherwise, the beans will blister, wrinkle and shrivel.
* The bread should be thinly sliced. Which is hard for day-old bread. Perhaps buy fresh bread, slice in advance and leave to go stale.
* If you think you’ve added too much water to the vegetable base, it will simmer away. It will get absorbed by the beans and veggies. Use the water that was used to cook the beans.
* The water you use to cook the beans, can be enhanced by a whole clove or 2 of garlic.
* Once you’ve added the liquid (which was used to cook the beans) to the vegetable base, you can enhance the flavor without using stock. For more umami flavor, chuck in prosciutto skins that normally get tossed out from delis once it’s been all sliced up. Your local deli should know what this is or if you are in Italy, it is called “la cotenna.”
* For even more umami, chuck in leftover parmigiano cheese rinds, or any aged cheese rinds for that matter.
* There is no real set time for how long you should simmer your soup, this is where North Americans get obsessed. “How long, and how much” is commonly asked. Everything is intuition in the kitchen and paying close attention to signs, and of course tasting along the way. For example, the “eye” of carrot medallions should fade away when it gets closer to being ready.
Even when the first phase of making la ribollita is over, it is simply a Minestra di Pane and not yet a Ribollita. In order to become one, it should rest overnight and be brought to a boil again the next day, adding water if too dry.
Here are the results from having ate out. By the way- soups like these may just look like mush. In addition to la ribollita I made, I sampled it at the following places:
(An eatery which shall not be named) I decided to include an example of what ribollita shouldn’t be, i.e. too much oil nor too much tomato. Although whatever attempt is delicious in it of itself!
Da Nerbone- One of my favorite greasy spoon, cheap eats spots in Florence. Pretty good and dependable. If you are in the San Lorenzo market- please eat at Nerbone. I love those guys. Disclaimer: I take people there during food tours so I am slightly biased.
Trattoria Sergio Gozzi- Another favorite historical trattoria of mine (which has been around for 100 years- folks!) For being a rather large sit-down eatery, it offers mom & pop style Tuscan fare and reasonable prices. I would say their Ribollita came in 2nd place for me.
Trattoria Cibreo’-Cibreino- Not the restaurant next door, but the modest Trattoria on the side where you can get pretty much the same food and service for a fraction of the price. It was definitely decent. Cibreo is best for well-made regional Italian food.
Vini e Vecchi Sapori- Well well well…I think we have found a winner. The soup here was to my pleasure the best for moisture level, bits of breads, savory base, perfect amount of oil, umami heaven, down to every last morsel. I could have eaten that stuff for days.
Although I ran out of places to try it, especially now that we are in Spring and La Ribollita is a winter soup, I would say for now my search for the best ribollita ended at Vini e Vecchi Sapori. I seriously love this place. It is located smack dab in the center, the service is spot on and the food is always dependable. Like their saffron and zucchini flower paccheri pasta- swoon! I am so glad places like Vini e Vecchi Sapori still exist. Let’s hope they don’t raise their prices and become a tourist trap.
If you’d like to know the recipe I used, check out this cookbook which is my manual to Tuscan cookery. (Unfortunately only in Italian, if you’d like a translated version, contact me!) I found this recipe online who translated from this book in case you want the recipe straight away!http://www.giunti.it/libri/cucina/il-grande-libro-della-vera-cucina-toscana/%5B/caption%5D
In constant search for the best calories,
The Curious Appetite