Each Italian region has its own recipe for this peasant dish which is a wonderful and tasty example of Cucina Povera.
Main ingredient is old bread – I refuse to use the word “stale” which has a negative connotation of bread that is no longer any good. Ideally, Pancotto is flavored with lots of wild herbs and greens like borage, wild fennel, wild chicory, and rocket or arugula, but if you can’t find these herbs, use a handful of fresh rosemary, thyme, basil, sage, arugula, and/or parsley, combined and chopped.
The vegetables are always the best of the season – add a handful of fresh fava beans in springtime, a few cauliflower florets in the fall, or bright cubes of butternut squash in winter.
2 cups chopped fresh wild or garden herbs
2 zucchini, quartered and cut in chunks
1 lb small new potatoes, preferably white ones, their skins rubbed off – or larger potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
2 ripe red tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped, or 1 1/2 cups drained canned tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with the flat blade of a knife
2 white onions chopped
3 – 1-inch-thick slices slightly stale country-style bread
1/2 small dried hot red chili pepper
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Place the herbs, and the vegetables of your choice and cover with water to a depth of one inch. Add salt to taste and bring to a simmer over high heat, then turn the heat down to medium-low, cover the pot, and cook until all vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes if you included potatoes.
Tear and crumble the bread (if too stale you may need to soak it in water first, then squeeze really well) and add to the simmering soup along with the chili pepper. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the bread has thoroughly broken down and thickened the soup, about 10 minutes longer.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary and pepper if desired.
Serve the soup immediately, with a good dollop of olive or any herbal oil.