Searching for a versatile dish? Try panzanella, an Italian classic. This torn bread salad featuring Northern Michigan cherry tomatoes is perfect for a light lunch, side dish or summer potluck.

In college, as the reality of growing up set in, I asked my paternal grandparents if I could visit them for the weekend so they could teach me how to cook some family recipes. Mel showed me how to stuff a turkey and Rosalie (née Rosalia) taught me her childhood recipe for spaghetti sauce. Born in Chicago to Italian parents, she also passed down her recipes for chicken with peppers, sweet and sour cucumbers and ravioli that weekend. Panzanella salad, however, never came up.

Panzanella Salad by Stacey Brugeman.

Photo by Dave Weidner

It wasn’t until my New York City chapter that I was introduced to this torn bread salad from Tuscany. The centuries-old classic includes stale bread, tomatoes, onions and basil and was popularized stateside in the 1980s. By the time I got to Manhattan in the late ’90s, it had jumped from the upscale Italian dining rooms over to the hottest new farm-to-table eateries, where I remember most often seeing it as a playful reinterpretation of the original. Over the years, I’ve tasted it made with zucchini, peaches or even kabocha squash. Tweaking it is fitting. “Panzanella is a salad designed to be made with leftover, stale bread and whatever of the other ingredients are available,” Marian Burros wrote for The New York Times in 1986.

Here, we keep the summertime salad closer to its roots—with one notable exception. Instead of using whole slicing tomatoes, which on the 45th parallel can take an entire growing season to ripen, we use the smaller, multi-colored cherry tomatoes that bear fruit so much sooner. This versatile dish is great as a light lunch or side dish, and makes an incredible potluck contribution for all those dockside get-togethers this month. Feel free to tinker. Like many spirited Italian cooks, my grandma was famous for barking “don’t ever change one of my recipes.” Fortunately, this isn’t one of hers.

Cherry Tomato Panzanella Recipe

Makes 12 cups

  • 12 ounces of 2- to 3-day old ciabatta bread, about half a loaf or 4 rolls
  • 3⁄4 cup olive oil
  • 1 anchovy, minced into a paste, plus
  • 1 Tablespoon oil from the anchovy tin
  • 1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 2 pints of cherry tomatoes, about 4 heaping cups, halved
  • 1 large shallot
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons drained capers
  • 4 large basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • freshly ground black pepper
Panzanella Salad by Stacey Brugeman.

Photo by Dave Weidner

  1. Tear the ciabatta into 1-inch, bite-sized pieces and allow it to sit, covered with a kitchen towel, for several hours to dry out.
  2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1⁄4 cup of the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add one-third of the torn bread and fry in a single layer, turning the pieces with tongs, until they are coated with oil and golden on at least one side. Working in batches, repeat this process twice with another 1⁄4 cup of oil and another third of the bread each time. Place all fried bread onto a baking sheet or other clean surface and set aside, discarding any oil left in the pan.
  3. In the bottom of a large serving bowl, place the minced anchovy, the anchovy oil and red wine vinegar, whisking to combine. Add the halved tomatoes, sliced shallot and salt. Toss this mixture with your hands, squeezing the tomatoes to release their juice. Fold in the cucumber and capers.
  4. Place fried bread onto tomato mixture and stir to combine. Season with torn basil leaves and freshly ground black pepper and serve.

Related Read: Looking for a cocktail to compliment your panzanella? View our ‘Last Call’ recipes.

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner