In his epic Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, who was banished from Florence for political reasons, bemoaned as one of the anguishes of exile “the saltiness of other people’s bread.” His beloved hometown’s unsalted bread or pane (pronounced pah-nay) soaks up the flavors of sauces, stews, and soups, just like the Florentine dialect—the basis of modern Italian—soaked up the richness of Dante’s lush language.
Among the varieties I've found in Florence are:
*filone (long sticks of the classic Tuscan unsalted bread)
*rondeggiante (round, flat loaves)
*bozza or pagnotta (tall, round loaves)
*pan de ramerino (rosemary bread, decorated with a cross and once sold by traveling bread salesmen called semellai outside churches during Holy Week)
*panina gialla aretina (a rich yellow bread, often enhanced with raisins, saffron and spices, eaten at Easter with eggs blessed in church the day before)
Pane doesn’t show up only at Italian tables. An upstanding person is buono come il pane (good like bread, the equivalent of “good as gold”). A plain-spoken one says pane al pane e vino al vino (calls a spade a spade). Italians portano a casa la pagnotta (carry home the bread) rather than bring home the bacon. “Quando si ha fame il pane sa di carne.“ “Hunger makes bread taste like meat,” they say.
When someone meets his match, he trova pane per i propri denti (finds bread for his teeth). If he has an opportunity but lacks the ability to make the most of it (or vice versa), he ha il pane ma non ha i denti (has the bread but not the teeth). People who make all sorts of sacrifices si tolgono il pane di bocca (take the bread out of their own mouths) on behalf of others.
At lunch in Florence, a friend torn between two options said the dilemma was like my pappa al pomodoro, the classic local tomato soup made with stale bread: se non è zuppa è pan bagnato (literally, if it’s not soup, it’s wet bread). In English, we’d say “six of the one and half dozen of the other.” Both English and Italian speakers agree on one simple truth: “Non si vive di solo pane.“ (Man does not live on bread alone.)
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italin, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
To see (and hear) mouth-watering pagnotta fresh from the oven, click the video.
Words and Expressions
mangiare pan pentito – eat penance bread (humble pie)
render pan per focaccia – give back bread for bread (tit for tat)
per un tozzo di pane –for a morsel of bread (next to nothing)
mangiare pane a ufo – eat bread without paying (not earn one’s keep)