“Where’s the butter for the bread?” asks a tourist from Chicago. “Can we get some butter out here?” asks a lady from Atlanta. “Perché?” queries the waiter.
Perché? indeed. In Italy, bread is not better with butter.
Butter never meets bread in Italy. except for a breakfast of a slice of toast with butter and marmellata or an after-school snack of bread and butter and Nutella.
At lunch or dinner, Italians wouldn’t think of slathering butter on the bread from the basket on the table. (They don’t dunk it in oil either, but that is the subject of a separate Food Rule.)
In fact, bread is served with the meal solely for the purpose of acting as the scarpetta – the little shoe – “fare la scarpetta” or use a little shoe of bread to scoop up the lasts remnents of sauce on the plate. A comprehensive discussion of “Scarpetta si, scarpetta no …” can be found on the Dellano website, saving you from the pitfalls of proper and polite public bread use.
To ask for butter in a restaurant, or many family homes, puts the host in a quandary. The kitchen may have a quarter kilo or more of butter, but it isn’t table-worthy. No cute pats or butter dishes.
Marcella Hazen adds a historical note: “Olive oil is all around the Appenine and at the heel of the boot so it is used all over but much more in the south because they don’t have cows so they don’t have milk, butter, and cream.”
Hazen may have forgotten about burrino (aka butirro) a cheese from the southern regions of Basilicata and Calabria that has a core of butter, served as a first dish with warm bread. The butter was historically stored in the cheese to preserve it before refrigeration.
Ginger at allrecipes.com sort of got the idea when she submitted a recipe for “Italian Butter”, but then she broke about five Food Rules with her ingredients: red pepper flakes, black pepper, oregano, rosemary, basil, parsley, garlic powder, minced garlic, salt, and extr virgin olive oil. One of Ginger’s reviewers, Ashlie H., broke a few more rules: “An incredible recipe! I mix it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar over finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese. We eat it until our bread is gone!”
When you visit Italy, give up bread and butter for the duration of your stay – you and your waistline will appreciate it – and think how good it will taste when you get home.