The first time I met my soon-to-be-favourite type of Italian ‘sandwich.’ Having said that, I don’t think Italians would actually agree with me calling it a sandwich, and strictly speaking it is not. It’s really more of a cross between a pancake and a flatbread, a large doughy disk cooked in a pan or on a hot plate and stuffed with all sorts of different combinations of ingredients, before being folded in half and served wrapped in paper.
You can buy piadine in plastic packets in the supermarket (to make at home), from kiosks on the beach, in specially dedicated Piadinerie (shops which exclusively sell piadine) and some people even make them from scratch. They’re really fast food I suppose, but infinitely more full of flavour than the sort I’m used to finding back home.
Piadine hail from the Romagna region (now located within the region of Emilia Romagna) in the northern part of Italy and are rather popular across the whole north of the country. From Torino to Rimini, you can buy a piadina, should you fancy one. They come sweet and savoury, rolled up or folded (depending on the filling) and can be purchased at most times of the day and night.
Piadine have been around for centuries (since at least the 1300s) and are thought to have taken their name from the Latin plàdena o plàtena. Originally cooked on a terracotta slab known as a testo, the piadina arrived into the world as an unleavened bread made from water, flour and salt. Over time the recipe altered somewhat, and today one or more of milk, wine, lard and sometimes even yeast, olive oil and bicarbonate of soda are now added to the recipe.
Fillings vary and can range from the most simple, such as prosciutto, mozzarella and tomato, or bresaola, parmigiano and arugula, to the more exotic, with fillings such as smoked salmon now on offer. Sweet piadine make for an excellent mid-afternoon snack, or a very satisfying ending to a piadina-centric meal. They’re almost like a pancake, just more dense and without the addition of eggs. I’ve had piadina filled with jam and even on one occasion spread with a thick, smooth layer of Nutella, before being rolled up and wrapped in foil, perfect to nibble on as I walked.
Having been exposed to the piadina in Italy, I was keen to see if I could find one when I returned to the UK and discovered, to my surprise, that you can actually buy fairly realistic-tasting piadine in the supermarkets here. Heated up in a frying pan in my London kitchen and ladened with mozzarella, prosciutto and salami, crisp, hearty mouthfuls remind me of Rimini and Ravenna and summer on the Riviera Romagnola. It could be mid-winter here and yet as I crunch down through a flakey, almost-pastry-like flatbread and through layers of warmed prosciutto and stringy, semi-melted mozzarella, I am back. Back in my memories of Italian summer.
It was June, the sun had dipped low, leaving behind a cloudless sky and a tepid evening, the kind of cool that brings relief after a day spent under the baking Italian sun, yet not cold enough for you to need to wear a jumper. After a long day spent lazing around on sun loungers at one of the many lidos between Ravenna and Rimini, we went for an aperitivo. Ostentatiously large glasses of Aperol, adorned with garish, multicoloured straws greeted us as we sat cross legged on starched, white cushions. The sun set pink as lights from a multitude of boats bobbed in the distance across the horizon. The yellow glow of resorts and other towns along the coast curved round in front of us, making the whole riviera feel suddenly much smaller and more densely populated than I had initially thought.
Growing hungry, we retreated from the water’s edge, back onto the dusty track linking the different lidos together and swarming with young Italians, teenagers and twenty-somethings, who had come down to the coast to escape the overbearing midsummer humidity of the Pianura Padana. Some point along the track we came upon a kiosk selling piadine and before our eyes a ball of dough became an impromptu meal. This consisted of a piadina with prosciutto and mozzarella, followed by another piadina, rolled up and stuffed full of sweet chocolate. Unfussy, simple and yet one of the best “sandwich” meals I have ever tasted, its flavour and spontaneity encapsulating for me all that it means to spend a summer on the northeastern Italian coast.