When this recipe for fried-bread panzanella appeared in Bon Appétit’s September issue, I eyed it suspiciously. Panzanella, a Tuscan salad made with tomatoes and stale bread soaked in vinaigrette, has never been my thing, thanks to one too many soggy-bread, underripe-tomato experiences at the mediocre Italian restaurants of my youth. But fried-bread panzanella? With ricotta? From Drifters Wife in Portland, ME—#9 on Bon Appétit‘s Hot 10 this year? It’s not every day you get to fry bread and call it a salad. I was convinced.
This panzanella recipe rises to genius status thanks to one technique: Whereas most panzanella recipes call for stale white bread, this one calls for fresh sourdough, which you then fry in thick slices on one side only. This partial-fry method lets half the bread pull in the vinegary juices of the tomato salad, while the other half stays crunchy like a giant homemade crouton. (Don’t freak out; we’re not deep frying here. It’s just a few tablespoons of oil in a skillet.) Then the beautiful half-browned bread gets cut into large chunks and tossed with the healthy stuff: tomatoes, red wine vinegar, shallot, garlic, and herbs. This alone would be my new favorite salad recipe, but then comes the ricotta, the feather bed of cheeses. Stirred with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, it gets spread over the plate before the salad gets poured on top in all its juicy, crispy, herby glory.
It’s the kind of recipe that this wine bar turned restaurant excels at: simple at first glance, eye-openingly good at first bite. With such a small menu, every dish at Drifters Wife has to deliver, from the roasted eggplant with cashew butter to the olive oil cake with yogurt, and this panzanella is no exception. You start to eat it politely with a fork and knife, but within minutes you go back to the platter with your fingers, dragging wedges of salty, half-crisp, half-soaked sourdough through puddles of ricotta, piling chunks of tomato on top, and eating it in one bite like reconstructed tomato toast. It’s a square meal if you want it to be, or you can pair it with Drifters Wife’s cast-iron chicken or another protein of your choice. Either way, it‘s fried bread and it’s also salad, which counts as a proper dinner for me.