Marble Cutter's Soup
(Pancotto al Pomodoro)

From The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Scribner, 1999). Copyright 1999 Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

Serves 6 to 8

Juicy ripe tomatoes, rugged country bread, garlic, and Tuscan olive oil make a favorite supper soup of the marble cutters who work the same Carrara quarries where Michelangelo learned his craft. At least that's the story I was told the first time I ate the soup by the woman who ran a roadside trattoria in the mountains near Carrara. I stopped there for lunch because it was the only place to eat I'd seen in a morning of driving tricky mountain roads, and several trucks were parked outside-usally a promising sign in rural Italy.

Her soup tasted like heaven-even better than the tomato bread soup from further south in Tuscany called Pappa al Pomodoro. All the flavors are up front in this soup. It's really a gutsy tomato sauce lengthened with water, ladled over coarse peasant bread and drizzled with olive oil. I make it for supper all the time—with canned tomatoes in winter and fresh ones in summer, when we eat the soup at room temperature. The woman in the trattoria said when she can buy very young sheep cheese from local shepherds, she shreds it and passes bowls of the cheese at the table. American-made sheep cheese is as good, and so is young Asiago. Try the soup with them and see what you think.

  • 2 medium red onions
  • 1/2 medium carrot
  • 1 small stalk celery with leaves
  • 4 branches Italian parsley
  • Robust extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tightly-packed cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 2 to 3 pounds delicious ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or one 28-ounce can and one 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained
  • Water
  • 12-ounces (about 3/4 loaf) rugged country bread of mixed grains (without fat or sweeteners), sliced and left to dry for a day
  • More olive oil
  • About 6-ounces Pecorino Toscano, Pecorino di Pienza, Toscanello, American sheep cheese (like Trade Lake Cedar), or young Asiago, shredded (optional)
  • 2 tightly-packed tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (optional)

1. Mince together the onion, carrot, celery, and parsley until very fine. Film the bottom of a 6-quart pot with oil and set over medium heat. Stir in the minced vegetables, with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper. Saute to rich golden brown in about 8 minutes. Blend in garlic and basil, and cook another minute. Add tomatoes, crushing them with your hands. Boil 10 minutes, or until thick and flavorful.

2. Stir in 6 cups water, or a ladleful for each diner. Simmer 10 minutes, uncovered, or until soup is only slightly reduced. Taste for seasoning. Just before serving, break up the bread into bite-sized pieces and add it to soup, or place the bread in the soup bowls. Ladle the soup into the bowls and serve hot. The soup is also good at room temperature.

3. Sprinkle each serving with a teaspoon or two of olive oil and generous black pepper. A little chopped fresh basil is a modern touch, and a very good one. Pass the cheese if desired.