While American dinner rolls are soft, buttery, and rich, Italian dinner rolls are crusty, chewy, and lean. The dough is similar to that used in Rustic Italian Bread, but an entirely different approach must be taken to shaping and baking rolls.
We started with the dough for our Rustic Italian Bread and made the following adjustments. For extra chewiness, we increased the water. More water equals more steam and more steam generates bigger air holes in the dough. Rather than rely on a biga for flavor (it seems a bit crazy to spend two days making dinner rolls), we boosted flavor in the dough with a little whole wheat flour and honey.
Shaping the dough was pretty straightforward. Most recipes divide the dough, shape each piece into a cylinder, and then cut individual pieces. But our dough was very wet and it was hard to shape the individual pieces. Even if we succeed in shaping the rolls, they spread in the oven and emerged as squat rolls.
We found that crowding the rolls into cake pans prevented them expanding sideways and produced tall, well risen rolls. To keep the dough pieces from fusing together we had to flour them well. And to crisp up the sides of the rolls (which were touching other rolls and thus pale and soft), we removed the cake pans from the oven once the rolls were set and dumped the rolls out onto a baking sheet. We then pulled apart the rolls and put the baking sheet in the oven so the rolls could finish baking. The result was perfectly risen, chewy rolls that were golden and crisp all around.
Total Cooking Time: 270
Preparation Time: 5
Active Cooking Time: 30
Make Ahead: Best when freshly baked
Yield: 16 rolls