I was a little unsure where to start this series. “At the beginning is usually best” I hear you yell. Ma non! What I mean is, where IS the beginning of the meal? To the English/American lover/violater of Italian food it would be bread….and oil….and vinegar. To an Italian it would be conversation with the friends you were lucky enough to share lunch with.
But a myth needs believers to be a myth so let’s go with the former. We’ve all heard the conversation go something like this:
Woman 1: “Where did you go for your meal last night?”
Woman 2: “Ooh we went to Il Ristorante Sterco
Woman 1: “It’s great there isn’t it? Their garlic bread’s divine and the balsamic in the bottom of the oil’s even in the shape of a turd. Sooo authentic”
There’s not one ristorante, trattoria or casa I’ve ever eaten at in Italy where a bowl of bright green olive oil with a suspicious looking puddle of cheap balsamic vinegar lurking in the bottom of it was plonked on the table with a basket of garlic bread, the type so beloved of Mr. Kay. (I’ll qualify that statement before someone shouts “I have!” There are, in the really touristy Americanized areas of Italy certain places where there may be oil and balsamic on the table, but for honourable reasons (see Italian Food Myths – A Prelude.). However, I did say “nowhere I’VE eaten”)
Yep, in most establishments where you’re paying, bread will almost always appear when you sit down but for different reasons.
- In Italy, every restaurant used to be obliged to levy a service charge called pane e coperto. It literally translates as pane (bread) e coperto (and cover) hence the phrase cover charge. It’s not compulsory anymore but all restaurants in touristy places will charge it and many others too. It’s part of the Italian way but the bread is meant to make it seem that that’s what you’re paying for ie not paying for nothing.
- The other main reason for bread to appear is that it has a function: “Fare la scarpetta.” It means “to make the little shoe” and refers to using a bit of bread as a scoop to finish up the dregs of your pasta sauce etc that’s just too good to waste. And no, you wouldn’t use your knife, spoon etc for that (that’s ANOTHER myth I’ve just realised…see myth No. 184) For this reason you leave the bread alone at the start of the meal ‘cos otherwise you’ll be full by the time your antipasti arrives.
The reasons why olive oil and balsamic won’t appear together in a dish on an Italian table are:
- Extra virgin olive oil, the only kind you’d want to eat raw, is bloody expensive. Any Italian would think “why do I want to waste good oil putting it in a bowl with vinegar when no ones going to touch it and I’ll have to chuck it away?”
- Proper aceto balsamico tradizionale (real balsamic vinegar) costs even more than good EVO. I bought a 100ml bottle in Modena that set me back 120 Euro. It’s hard to get in the UK but has the texture of treacle and a taste like nothing else on the planet. It’s aged in wood for at least 12 years and up to, well as long as you like. It’s used on all food from roast chicken to parmgiano reggiano (parmesan cheese) to gelato (ice cream)
- If you put some vinegar, cheap or otherwise, in the bottom of a bowl of oil and try to get some on your dipping bread, it’s like bobbing for bloody apples. Bread goes in, just comes out with oil on it and black goo at the bottom of dish smiles up smugly at you. Conclusion? Waste of time.
- Think about it. Would you want to dip your bread in a bowl after Aunt Halitosis who is on her third dip (with bites in between), or Uncle Conrad whose main claim to fame is his oh so interesting collection of skin diseases? No, I thought not.
So, next time you’re out for that Italian meal. Try and be authentic, even if the restaurant isn’t.