Prosciutto Bread: A Southern Italian Delicacy That's Made Its Way To NYC

There is a lot of really good bread in New York City. The city has a long history of being home to immigrants from around the world, making it a melting pot of cultures, languages, and foods. Wherever you are in the vast metropolis, you are likely just a walking distance away from Jewish bagels and bialys, French baguettes and croissants, German pretzels and Kaiser rolls, and Indian naan and roti. Because the influx of people who call other countries their homeland is so vast, even breads that would be deemed difficult to find in other cities are often spotted somewhere in the five boroughs.

This is true for an Italian specialty called prosciutto bread, or lard bread. Prosciutto bread is a heavy white bread flavored with lard and studded with pieces of prosciutto and salami, often shaped into a ring. While its origins remain largely unclear, it can be deduced that it came from Southern Italian immigrants. Unlike other Italian breads like ciabatta and focaccia that are an expected offering in any corner Italian bakery, prosciutto bread remains largely elusive, even to New York City's standards. But rest assured, it does exist, and it's something worth seeking out. Those already in the know scoop up the hot-from-the-oven loaves regularly, and more people are discovering the delicacy every day. You should, too.

Food preservation inspired the bread

Many Italian Americans recall eating prosciutto bread during their childhood, often around holidays like Christmas and Easter, suggesting that their beloved nonnas and mamas made the loaves for special occasions. Prosciutto bread likely was inspired by an Italian bread called pane con ciccioli. As told by Taste, former chef and caterer and now budding prosciutto bread-businesswoman Josephine Restaino learned to make pane con ciccioli from her grandmother, whose husband brought the recipe from Naples to America when he was a young teenager.

It was common in Italy for families to butcher hogs in the winter to procure their meat. The time of year was key as the meat was less likely to spoil quickly in cooler weather. This suggests why the bread was served around Christmas and into the spring. Known for preserving every last bit of an animal for food, Italians would save both the lard and the byproducts of the rendering, called ciccioli, or small bits of fatty meat that would crisp up during the rendering process. The ciccioli would be added to many dishes, including folded into freshly baked bread, and it is pane con ciccioli that you can still find in homes and many bakeries in Italy.

Nicolo Mazzola, the founder of Mazzola Bakery in Brooklyn, immigrated from Sicily in the early 20th century and baked prosciutto bread starting in 1928, suggesting his recipe also came from the southern part of the country.

More than just prosciutto

After immigrating to America, Italians found an explosion of industry in 19th-century New York, with Italian butchers and bakeries popping up everywhere. Families no longer had to render their own lard or butcher their own pigs, they could simply buy the ingredients they needed for their family recipes. In addition, Italians found that many regional ingredients were available to them, not just what they were accustomed to working with. A woman from Naples suddenly had access to cured meats from Northern Italy. This is, perhaps, how prosciutto bread morphed into what it is today.

At its most basic, prosciutto bread is made by mixing small chunks of prosciutto into white bread dough. Once baked and sliced, you are treated to a soft, pillowy bread with glorious bits of salty ham interspersed throughout. But there is certainly no set recipe for the bread; bakeries often add any bits of meat they have, like salami, sausage, or the traditional crispy pork chunks. Cheese is often included in the form of mozzarella or provolone. Of course, lard continues to play a role in the bread, both for texture and flavor. The ingredients can either be incorporated into the dough while it's being mixed, or you can roll out the dough into a flat oval and place the fillings in a row before rolling the dough up, sealing it, and shaping it as desired.

New York City is the best place to find it

While also found sparsely in parts of Philadelphia and New Jersey, your best chance of finding prosciutto bread is in New York. Even though there are countless Italian bakeries in the bustling city (many of them reputable), only a precious percent offer prosciutto bread, and some may only bake it around holidays. These businesses are working hard to ensure the specialty remains alive and available. According to Taste, Brooklyn-based Caputo's Sweet & Cake Shop and Little Italy's Parisi Bakery regularly bake the treat, as does Brooklyn's Mazzola Bakery, where it is the baked bread they are most famous for.

Serious Eats notes that several other Brooklyn bakeries sell prosciutto bread, including Royal Crown Bakery, Amy's Bread, and Napoli Bakery, among others. Home bakers could try their hands at a homemade version, but you won't find recipes for prosciutto bread in many cookbooks. There are, however, blogs and magazine outlet sites where you could find guidance. With this option, you will be totally free to play with whatever ingredients sound good but remember, prosciutto and lard are necessary if you want to make it authentic.