When it comes to an Italian sandwich, like panini, focaccie and ciabatte are probably the first ones that spring to mind. However, one kind of Italian sandwich that's seldom served at cafes and more commonly eaten in Italian–Australian homes is called a frisella. I grew up eating this bagel–shaped bread, which is a favourite of my father's and a pantry staple.
Double baked beyond crunchiness, friselle (the plural of frisella) hails from southern Italy, specifically in the regions of Campania, Puglia and Calabria. As a result, they go by several names, including freselle, frisedde and frese, just to name a few.
In Australia, they're commonly sold at most Italian supermarkets in packs, but they can be easily dismissed on the shelves due to their dry appearance and see-through plastic wrapping. When prepared properly, however, they quickly transform into a wonderful bruschetta-style open sandwich. In just a few minutes you can put together a flavoursome starter, snack or even a meal for one. Because they're double-baked, they have a longer shelf life than ordinary bread, so they're convenient to have in your cupboard.
The trick to preparing friselle is to revive them from their jaw-breaking state by briefly running water over both their top and bottom sides. This softens them and makes them spongey while simultaneously maintaining their crunchy texture. By far the most common way to serve them is with a combination of chopped tomatoes, olive oil, salt and a dusting of oregano. In Campania, chopped garlic and anchovies are sometimes added to the mix, while in Puglia, cooked tuna often features. In Calabria, rubbing garlic onto the frisella's top side is another preparation, as well as adding red onion and chilli to the tomato mixture.
After reviving a frisella with water, one of my father's favourite ways to eat one is to lightly drizzle the top part with olive oil then lightly splash it with quality balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar. While the frisella absorbs the water, oil and vinegar, he adds bite-sized pieces of ripe but firm tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt, three to four twists of cracked pepper, some torn basil leaves, a sprinkle of dried oregano in a small bowl then mixes it together. He spoons this mixture onto the frisella and then garnishes it with a few more fresh basil leaves to serve.
"In just a few minutes you can put together a flavoursome starter, snack or even a meal for one."
Today, the frisella continues to be a versatile canvas, with topping combinations as extensive and similar to those we've come to see on pizzas. These include adding prosciutto, ricotta, burrata, mozzarella, even fresh figs.
They've even transcended into sweet status. People enjoy them for breakfast with a spread of jam and butter, or even as a dessert.
For Victorian-based chef and author Adelina Fiorito Pulford, who grew up in Calabria, friselle weren't bought. Instead, they were made from scratch by her mother at home. The recipe she shares below involves first making pitte — a type of ring-shaped flatbread.
Fiorito Pulford explains, "Mum would bake bread every fortnight in a wood-fired oven in our kitchen in Italy.
"The leftover pitte would be cut in half and dried in the warm oven after the loaves were cooked." This second bake is what transforms the bread into friselle. They were eaten when Fiorito Pulford's family ran out of bread, but also during the hotter months when it was too hot for her mother to bake regularly.
Whether you bake or buy them or eat them with a savoury or sweet topping, friselle are well worth seeking out and adding to your list of Italian sandwich staples.
Photographs by Jennifer Curcio and Adelina Fiorito Pulford.
- 1 kg 00 flour
- 600 g warm water
- 30 g fresh yeast or 15 g dried yeast
- 60 g olive oil, plus extra
- 25 g table salt
- Sieve the flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. In a medium-sized bowl, add the water followed by the yeast and mix well until the yeast has dissolved. Add the olive oil and mix well.
- Start the mixer and mix the flour for a few minutes, then start adding the water with the yeast and olive oil a little at a time until the mixture becomes smooth. Mix for about 5 minutes on medium speed and then add the salt. Continue to mix the dough on medium speed for 10-15 minutes until it becomes perfectly smooth.
- Line a large bowl with a little olive oil and place the dough inside, then cover with plastic wrap. On top of the plastic wrap, place a warm woollen blanket and keep it in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
- When the dough has doubled, punch it down with your hands and cut the dough into 7 pieces weighing approximately 220 g each.
- Flatten each piece of dough into a circle, pierce the middle with a knife and put your fingers through it to make a hole in the dough. Then, swirl with your hand around the middle to create a larger hole. Start placing the pitte on four baking trays lined with baking paper also sprayed with a little oil to stop the dough from sticking. Place 2 pitte each on 3 trays and 1 pitta on the fourth tray. Cover the trays with baking paper and a warm woollen blanket and let rise for 1-2 hours until the pitte double in volume.
- Preheat the oven to 250ºC and put the pitte in the oven. Place 2 trays on the top shelf and 2 trays on the bottom shelf. Depending on the size of your oven you may need to bake the pitte in batches.
- Spray the oven with some water to help brown the pitte and cook for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 220ºC and cook for another 30 minutes or until the pitte are golden brown.
- When the pitte are cold, cut them in half horizontally and return to a preheated oven at 180ºC for 35 minutes to ensure both the top and bottom of the pitte bake completely, creating friselle.
- When the friselle are cold put them in an airtight container. They will stay fresh for 3 months.
- To serve, run each frisella briefly under cold tap water and as the water is absorbed, put each frisella onto a serving plate. Top with diced tomatoes, red onion, salt, pepper, dried oregano and some basil leaves. Dress with olive oil.