When life gives you peppers, you make Peperonata. Then you make Peperonata Crostini to accompany a pre-dinner glass of wine to tease the taste buds and get the party started. That’s exactly what I did this summer in Italy. We invited last minute guests to dinner and I needed bite size appetizers to serve with the aperitivi. When my friend walked into the kitchen with an armful of sun-ripened peppers freshly picked from her garden, I just had to turn them into one of my favorite summer dishes.
Peperonata gets its name from the main ingredient in this dish: peppers. And more precisely, bell peppers called peperoni in Italian. But unlike other preparations that grill, roast or sauté these peppers to play up their sharp, often bitter flavor, peperonata takes a different approach to bring out another side of this capsicum—the sweet side. The result is a magical marriage of flavors that is pure culinary alchemy.
In peperonata, lithe ribbons of bright red bell peppers are gently stewed with thinly sliced onions, garlic, and a tinge of tomato until tender, silky and coated with a sweet, syrupy glaze. Fragrant bay leaves lend an aromatic note and a strategic splash of wine vinegar—added as almost an afterthought—gives the stew a surprising tangy finish that lingers on the palate and begs for more. Peperonata’s vibrant mélange of colorful ingredients provides eye candy for an exhilerating taste trifecta of sweet-sour-savory that seduces even the most reluctant pepper eater.
While classic peperonata is made with red bell peppers, I often mix it up by using a combination of red, yellow and orange to create a joyful presentation you can taste first with your eyes. This time, the home-grown peppers from my friend’s garden were a stunning shade of cardinal red and naturally variegated with orange and green streaks from various degrees of sun-kissed ripeness. I paired them with red Tropea onions from Calabria for more sweetness.
Peperonata is one of those Italian dishes that every home cook should have in their culinary repertoire. It’s simple to prepare, takes relatively little time and is extremely versatile. Traditionally served warm as an Italian contorno, this vegetable side dish pairs exquisitely with roasted meats like pork, chicken or lamb. It can also be served at room temperature as a relish to accompany Italian salumi and cheeses for an antipasto. And in summer months, I love to serve peperonata as a colorful, tasty topping on toasted bread crostini for an irresistible hors d’oeuvre.
I learned to make peperonata from my friend Carlo in Sirmione, Italy decades ago. Carlo was a man of few words but spared none in teaching me his secrets to making the perfect peperonata. First, he showed me how to gently cook thin slices of onion until translucent before tossing in peppers—meticulously cut into same size ribbons—to infuse more natural sweetness. Next, after adding “just enough” water muddled with some tomato paste “for color”, he tucked two perfumed bay leaves into the pan. “Stew it at a low simmer with the lid slightly askew…but only until the peppers are supple and barely tender when poked with the point of a knife. Don’t overcook or they will become limp and mushy.” Perhaps his best advice, though, was to add vinegar at the very end then boil uncovered to burn off the brash flavor and reduce it to a sweet, shiny glaze that “makes the peppers look like candy”. These little secrets make all the difference in the world and I’ve been preparing peperonata Carlo’s way every since.
Once the peperonata is made, all I do when guests arrive is toast bread slices in the oven and lovingly drape the peppers on top of each crostino. Here I used a country style Tuscan loaf we had on hand cut into quarter moon shapes. But I often use a dense crumb baguette cut into thin rounds that are easy to pick up and eat while balancing a wine glass in the other hand. Then I sit back, enjoy my own party, and savor the sweet taste of summer in every bite of peperonata crostini.