Friselle, freselle, frise, frisedde go by many different names. They are a type of twice-baked bread from the regions of Puglia, Calabria and Campania. Whether ring-shaped or oval, the durum wheat buns are initially baked until almost done, then taken out of the oven, sliced open, and baked again to jaw-breaking hardness. In addition to the classic kind, equally popular is the whole-grain version of semolina flour which is milled using the entire wheat berry. The brown-flecked rusks boast a very pronounced wheaty taste. In fact, I love the friselle integrali much better than the plain.
The origins of friselle are extremely ancient. Purportedly, they first appeared around the 10th Century, eaten by merchants who were out months at sea, sailing to reach distant markets. At that time – with no refrigeration – few foods had a long shelf life. Friselle, once dried, could be kept for lengthy periods of time.
Dried friselle are too hard to be eaten so they have to be softened. My mother recalls how as a child everyone would moisten friselle by dipping them –just like the ancient merchants used to do – in sea water! That’s how clean and safe the Mediterranean used to be seventy years ago…
Friselle usually come wrapped in a big clear plastic bag of six or eight, depending on the size. They are not very handsome to look at, but they are oh, so versatile and delicious! Typically, Italian grocery stores in the US they’re often called biscuott’ (southern Italian dialect shift of the word “bisotto” for twice-cooked to a crisp). I even found these typically Mediterranean rusks in Crete, where they’re called dakos and normally topped with Greek olive oil, fresh chopped tomatoes, moistened with a splash of red wine vinegar and smeared with mizithra, a local fresh goat cheese.
Versatile indeed, there are many ways to top friselle. Here are a few other ways ways I usually dress mine. Remember to dip them in water to moisten them. To recreate the traditional method, try dipping them in salted water.
Classic – Friselle are often served very simply, topped with heaps of ripe chopped tomatoes and fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with sea salt.
Tuscan, Panzanella-style – The friselle are soaked briefly in water, crumbled and splashed with vinegar. Seasoned with extra virgin olive oil and salt, they are tossed with chopped tomatoes, slivered red onion, chopped cucumber and lots of fresh basil leaves.
Calabrese-style – Before being dipped, the friselle are rubbed with a clove of garlic, then dipped in water and seasoned with salt, purple Tropea onions, red pepper flakes and glugs of extra virgin olive oil. If ‘nduja (typical spicy Calabia spreadable sausage) is within close reach, smear some of that on the friselle too.
Not for the faint of heart – The friselle I ate in Conversano, in Puglia, were smeared with ricotta forte, a spicy ricotta that’s aged 5 months. You will either hate or become hooked on the audacious cheese. I tried my first taste of it on friselle, and it was love at first bite.
Roman-style – Smear friselle with butter and top each with one or two oil-preserved anchovies. Finish with some lemon zest.
Sautéed clams – Instead of mostening the friselle with plain or salted water, consider using the liquid released by quickly steaming clams open. Put your scrubbed clams in a wide-bottomed pan with a clove of garlic and a bunch of fresh basil. Cover with a tight fitting lid and simmer briefly over vivacious heat. In 2-3 minutes the clams will have opened and released a delicious juice. Filter the juice and heat it with a thread of extra virgin olive oil. Pour tablespoons of clam juice over the rusks to revive them, finish by topping with the shelled clam meats and a dusting of black pepper.
Crudaiola – Crudo means raw. Chopped raw summer vegetables that become a pasta condiment are called crudaiola. Try mincing to a fine brunoise cucumbers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, celery and leek, seasoning the mix with salt and pepper and a thread of extra virgin olive oil; and then topping your friselle with it. Uncork the chilled wine and smile.
Pane e pomodoro – Use the frisella’s rough surface as a grater to rub fresh tomato halves, and obtain a perfect tomato puree. All you’re left with is the skin, while the pulp, juice and seeds stay on the coarse frisella, moistening it and flavoring it. Just add salt and extra virgin olive oil and you’re set. Burrata or ricotta are also welcome accoutrements…
Italian Tuna Salad – I choose my tuna very carefully. I spend a little more but make sure it’s tested for mercury, line caught, steamed and preserved in fine olive oil. When I want to make friselle with tuna I drain the excess olive oil from the tin of tuna, break up the fillets in smaller flakes and mix it with chopped tomatoes, green olives and fresh basil. I season with a pinch of dried oregano, salt and drizzle with robust extra virgin olive oil.
Avocado – A Mediterranean twist on the avocado toast: smear ripe avocado on moist friselle, add slivered almonds, season with sea salt and lime juice.
Sicilian-style – I love the pairing of fresh orange with savory elements, especially fennel and fish. The butterflied anchovies are marinated in olive oil and fennel fronds and then placed on friselle that have been moistened with freshly squeezed orange juice, each garnished with a slice of peeled orange.
Elliot’s recipe – my son loves to experiment in the kitchen. When we have guests over his friselle are always a hit. He moistens them with salted water and then dresses the friselle with slivered pears, flakes of Parmigiano Reggiano and a few drops of extra aged balsamic vinegar.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.