Make One Last Summer Panzanella—And Break All the Rules

Forget everything you think you know about what should go into this classic bread salad.
Chili crisp vinaigrette being poured over a platter of tomato and zucchini panzanella.
Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton

Panzanella is usually described as an Italian bread salad, but it’s really more like a state of mind. Have an odd amount of bread aging on the countertop? A single tomato with no destination? And maybe a tablespoon or so of capers or a half inch of chili crisp to use up? This is when you season each little tidbit to your taste, throw them in a bowl, and call it a panzanella.

Classic panzanella often involves wedges of tomato, bites of cucumber, slivers of red onion, and plenty of basil. There are usually rustic cubes of stale or toasted bread to soak up a simple vinaigrette. But all of these ingredients can be swapped in and out, and the casual template of crunchy, soggy textures is irresistible for chefs and home cooks to play with. The salad has been reimagined for spring, winter, and every mood and moment in between.

Earlier this summer, I had a roasted apricot, focaccia, and Thai basil panzanella at New York’s Superiority Burger. Epicurious contributor Asha Loupy recently made the case that panzanella has a life outside of the oil-and-vinegar dressing. Loupy’s version swaps in a creamy dressing that can be made with whatever pickles you have taking up space in your fridge.

Add some of this to your panzanella and you might never go back.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Rebecca Jurkevich

Even the bread component itself can be a creative point of departure from Italian flavors. Author and recipe developer Frankie Gaw recently posted a video on Instagram of a panzanella made from warm, flaky scallion pancakes and tiny round sungold tomatoes. At Kuya Lord, in Los Angeles, chef Lord Maynard Llera makes a panzanella with pandesal that’s been toasted over an almond wood grill. Llera describes it as an ode to a Filipino ensaladang talong (eggplant salad), and the dish is made with heirloom tomatoes, burnt eggplant purée, burrata, red onion, mint, and calamansi vinaigrette.

In James Park’s recent book, Chili Crisp, there is a glistening red tomato panzanella that showcases the flavors of, you guessed it, chili crisp. In his version, Park decided to incorporate the spicy oil both as a base for a vinaigrette and as a fat to fry the bread in.

“The crispy bread soaked up spicy, savory flavors of chili crisp, and the vinaigrette was bright and tangy,” he tells me. While Park is on board with panzanella experimentation, he sees the salad as having three non-negotiable components: “Crispy bread, loads of fresh veggies, and tangy, bright vinaigrette. But, the most important part is the crispy bread.”

Park’s panzanella calls for sourdough, but he’s also considered trying pita or paratha. “As long as there’s a crispy bread element that can soak up vinaigrette flavors, that’s fine,” he says. The next time you have some day-old croissants, leftover naan, or a stray pretzel roll left from a cookout, grab a tomato and a jar of chili crisp, and put the last 500 years of panzanella innovation to good use.