The name means simply cooked bread, and like so many similar soups all over Italy the key ingredient is slightly stale bread. In Italian, the bread, once it's no longer fresh, is called pane raffermo, meaning bread that has firmed up - a nicer terminology than our "stale bread" with its negative connotation of bread that is no longer any good.
Ideally, pancotto should be flavored with lots of wild herbs and greens like borage, wild fennel, wild chicory, and rocket or arugula, but if you can't find these herbs, use a handful of fresh rosemary, thyme, basil, sage, arugula, and/or parsley, combined and chopped.
The vegetables can be varied with the season - add a handful of fresh fava beans in springtime, a few cauliflower florets in the fall, or bright cubes of butternut squash in winter.
8 TBSP cup chopped fresh wild or garden herbs (see above)
2 zucchini, quartered and cut in chunks
1/2 lb fresh green beans, broken in short lengths
1 lb small new potatoes, preferably white ones, their skins rubbed off - or larger potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
2 ripe red tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped, or 1 1/2 cups drained canned tomatoes
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed with the flat blade of a knife
8 TBSP cup chopped white onion
2 - 1-inch-thick slices slightly stale country-style bread
1/2 small dried hot red chile pepper
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
IN a stockpot or soup kettle place the herbs, zucchini, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, and onion and cover with water to a depth of one inch.
ADD salt to taste and bring to a simmer over high heat, then turn the heat down to medium-low, cover the pot, and cook until the potatoes are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
CUT the crusts off the bread slices and soak briefly in water, then squeeze the bread to get rid of all the water.
TEAR and crumble the soaked bread and add to the simmering soup along with the chile pepper. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the bread has thoroughly broken down and thickened the soup, about 10 minutes longer.
TASTE and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary and pepper if desired.
SERVE the soup immediately, with a good dollop of olive oil or olio santo and a little sprinkle of freshly chopped green herbs atop each serving.
OPTIONAL: You may also pass a bowl of freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano at table.