About 30 minutes northwest of Naples, in a commune called Caianello, there’s an agriturismo (farm restaurant) called Il Contadino (“The Farmer”), run by Italian chef and restaurateur Berardino Lombardo. I love this location, as it is right off the highway that connects Rome to Naples. Turn right at the sign, and there’s a big photo of Berardino flanked on both sides by young hazelnut trees.
Next to the parking lot, there’s a large patio with tables and a huge grill. The front room has a table covered with baskets of whatever’s in season, an enormous old-fashioned stove that Berardino bought from a convent, and a blackboard menu. A room to the side has one long table lined with shelves of jars—beans, chickpeas, brined yellow and red cherry tomatoes, fruit preserves, all for sale. I can never resist buying some every time I visit. Ancient Romans call this area campania felix (fertile countryside), which is probably why the produce is so delicious.
At the restaurant, Berardino makes special cured pork belly called stringata, which is scented with apple since that’s what the pigs have feasted on, along with what leftovers he has on hand. Everyone drinks the house red, made with local Aglianico grapes. The food offered in the dining rooms is rustic—no purees, no garnishes, and it’s all served family style on platters that quickly cover the table. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen l’uovo a susciello (“hurry up egg”): a slice of bread topped with a poached egg or two, flooded with a spicy, slightly porky tomato broth. The traditional meatballs in tomato sauce may be the antecedent for Italian-American meatballs and spaghetti—but there’s no spaghetti here.
But the dish I absolutely have to order is pancotto (“cooked bread,” sometimes called “bread soup”). It’s a great example of bare-bones cucina povera, as it’s made with a vegetable, its cooking liquid, and stale bread, which is flavored with garlic and chili pepper and enriched by extra virgin olive oil. Most pancotto is done with broccoli rabe, but any greens will do. I’ve eaten pancotto in restaurants in Campania and Puglia, but Berardino’s is the very best, distinguished by its crispy exterior, which is different in texture from the usual mushy versions.
Since the stove is in the front room, I carefully watched the process of making this recipe and learned his secret: cooking the bread cubes in abundant extra virgin olive oil at the beginning and evaporating the vegetable broth at the end. This makes the bread and vegetables brown. Since it involves few ingredients, all of them must be first-rate, especially the extra virgin olive oil.
Whenever I have leftover slices of bread, I cube them and keep in a paper bag so I’m always ready to make this pancotto. One last note: a perfect non-stick pan is essential to succeed with this dish.
- 1 pound turnip greens, broccoli rabe, or wild greens
- 1/2 cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil (you know what I mean), and more to drizzle
- 4 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 dried chili pepper, cut in half
- 4 cups cubed (1/2” cubes) stale bread (bread should be rustic, water based, not fat-enriched)
- Coarse and fine sea salt, to taste