Pane e Olio
Bread and Olive Oil
To dip or not to dip? Intingere o non intingere?
Un ristoratore della provincia di Firenze (a restauranteur from the province of Florence) recently e-mailed a question about il costume dei turisti americani di mangiare pane e olio al ristorante (the custom of American tourists of eating bread and oil at a restaurant): “Saprebbe lei Lei dirmi da cosa deriva questa usanza?” (Could you tell me from what this usage derives?)
Only una decina di anni fa (ten years ago), he noted, it was difficult for him even to understand a request for un piatto e l'oliera per fare pane e olio (a plate and a cruet to make bread and oil.) The Tuscan wondered if this is una caratteristica tipica (a typical characteristic) of Italian restaurants in the United States—like la pizza coi pepperoni o gli degli spaghetti colle polpette o delle le tagliatelle alla Alfredo (pizza with pepperoni or spaghetti with meatballs or fettucini Alfredo), dishes that non esistono (don’t exist) in Italy.
Although he has seen Italians do the same, the veteran chef describes it as un comportamento in genere deprecato (a behavior generally disdained) or tolerated only in children, not unlike the use of il ketchup.
I didn’t have an answer, but Ann Reavis, author of Italian Life Rules, Italian Food Rules and the Tuscan Traveler blog, did. She first encountered the bread-and-oil combo at Farallon, a popular San Francisco restaurant, more than twenty years ago. Here is her account:
“Our waiter presented with a flourish a thin sliced baguette of warm sourdough bread and a bowl of deep green extra virgin olive oil...With some sleight of hand he produced a small bottle of balsamic vinegar and created a floating purplish 'S' on the surface of the oil. Noting our bemused expressions, he explained that the proper procedure was to dip a bite of torn bread into the oil, catching a smidgen of the aceto balsamico and pop it into one’s mouth.”
When she arrived in Italy in 1998, Reavis learned a fundamental “Italian food rule”: Don’t dip bread in olive oil. Even compared to common culinary infractions like drinking cappuccino after lunch or dinner, eating bread with oil and vinegar seemed a travesty. Why? Here are some of the reasons Reavis cites:
*Eating bread before a meal ruins the appetite.
*It’s wasteful since fine Italian extra virgin olive oil – the only type to eat with bread – is pricey.
*It's unsanitary. Dipping a hunk of bread in a communal bowl of olive oil, taking a bite and then dipping it back in the same oil “would cause Italians to go pale with visions of bacteria, viruses, etc.”
*It’s messy, given the almost unavoidable drips.
A dash of vinegar adds to the magnitude of the culinary crime. As Reavis explains, “traditional aceto balsamico is wildly expensive, exquisitely good and should never be drowned in olive oil.
As with many Italian rules, there are exceptions. In a homey dish called fettunta -- from fetta (slice) and unta (oily) –- a slice of bread is toasted, rubbed while still warm with a halved clove of fresh garlic and topped with fresh extra virgin olive oil and salt to taste. Actual dipping is acceptable only at formal tastings of just-pressed extra virgin olive oils. However, in the privacy of your home, you can use bread to fare la scarpetta (make the little shoe) and soak up the last bits of a tasty sauce.
Words and Expressions
Quando si ha fame il pane sa di carne -- hunger makes bread taste like meat
Bruschetta –- Italian pronunciation: bruˈsketta. Italians cringe when they hear bru’shetta
Pinzimonio –- oil dip, but with raw vegetables like celery and carrots
Inzuppare –- dunk, as in inzuppare i biscotti nel latte (dunk biscotti in milk)
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.