Core the tomatoes and trim of blemishes or under-ripe shoulders. Blanch or blister over an open flame, and peel about half of them. Leave the skins on the remainder. (Aside from giving the pappa more flavor, the skins give this version its distinctive texture.) Coarsely chop the tomatoes into 1/4-inch bits, taking care to capture all the juices. Collect the tomatoes and juice in a bowl.
Warm about 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a 4-quart saucepan or 3-quart sauté pan over low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stirring a few times, cook over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes while the onions soften and sweat in their juices; they will become translucent and sweeter. Once they are tender, stir in the garlic. Cook for a few minutes longer, then add the tomatoes, juice and seeds and another healthy splash of oil. Raise the heat and bring to a simmer.
Pick the leaves from the basil and set them aside, then push the stem into the sauce. Cook only long enough for the bits of tomato to collapse and release their skins, another 5 to 10 minutes. Watch the color of the sauce, and stop the cooking just as it takes on the characteristic orange hue of cooked tomatoes. Taste for salt and for sweetness. If you find the sauce too acidic, add a pinch of sugar, but reserve final judgment until after you add the bread. You should have about 4 cups of sauce.
Remove the basil stem. Tear the basil leaves and add to the sauce. Tear the bread into fistfuls. Bring the sauce to a boil, add the bread, and stir just until it is saturated and submerged. Cover the pan with a tightly fitting lid, remove from the heat, and place in a very warm spot, or place over barely simmering water. Leave the bread to swell and soften for 15 minutes or so.
When you are ready to serve the pappa, give it a vigorous stir to break up the chunks of softened bread, taste again, and adjust for salt and sweetness.
Stir in a few more spoonsful olive oil to enrich the pappa and enhance its perfume. But don?t over-stir the pappa once you?ve added the bread, lest you sacrifice its delightful lightness and pleasantly lumpy, irregular texture.
Offer cracked black pepper and extra-virgin olive oil with the pappa.Makes 4