Considering the price of risotto at your typical Upper East Side boite, it's amazing to think that Tuscan food was once strictly from hunger. In the 19th century, Tuscan peasants scrounged for every morsel, and malnutrition diseases like pellagra were rife. Tuscans did the best they could out of little. When salt prices spiked, bakers simply made their bread without salt, beginning a tradition that continues today. Tuscan peasants turned stale bread into bruschetta and minestre di pane, or "bread soup," two staples of their semi-starvation diet. In fact, many Northern Italian dishes served today have their roots in that same dire peasant tradition. Think about that the next time you dunk an elegant crust into a dish of $30-a-bottle olive oil.
But enough with the downer history lesson. Let's celebrate the arrival of good Tuscan, no-salt bread in New York City. The ancestor of Christopher Street's Il Cantuccio bakery was opened more than 90 years ago back in Italy. It takes its name from "cantucci," a kind of biscotti from the town of Prato just northwest of Florence that's already been celebrated by SENY. Lorenzo, Il Cantuccio's owner, enlisted two partners, Simone and Camilla, to open the bakery's New York beachhead in April of 2010. Lorenzo and Simone take care of the night baking, while Camilla oversees the day business.
Il Cantuccio sells only one kind of loaf, pane sciapo, or salt-less bread, made from water, yeast, and imported Italian "0" flour. You can easily see how it would have served the Tuscan peasant diet. The crust is hard, the better to keep the interior fresh, while inside the crumb is dense and yeasty. The lack of salt also helps preserve the moisture for an extra day or two. It's not the first bread you think of to gobble plain, but it makes a perfect foil for prosciutto and other salty toppings. Il Cantuccio turns the bread into excellent sandwiches and for breakfast also smears slices with jam, marmalade, or, of course, Nutella. When it finally turns stale, you can turn it into the peasant's "pappa al pomodoro," a kind of thick summer soup made from softened stale bread and chopped plum tomatoes.
The other savory specialty to emerge from Il Cantuccio's ovens is "schiacciata," the Tuscan version of focaccia. The baker's art gives this version a remarkable wood-like grain to the crust, while the interior is simultaneously chewy and fluffy. It's not as moist as most city focaccia, mainly because the olive oil is just brushed on top, not mixed into the dough. Il Cantuccio sells schiacciata topped with potatoes, tomatoes, olives, and a kind of coarse dried pork called "ciccioli," but I prefer the plain version with just a bit of olive oil and salt on top.
On the sweet side of the bread case, keep an eye out for "pan di Ramerini." This is a Florentine Easter specialty, with a soft, slightly sweet dough stuffed with raisins and perfumed, surprisingly, with rosemary. It melts in your mouth as your senses go up to heaven.