Italian Food Rule – Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil

It was at least twenty years ago when I first broke the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil.

Or, to clarify: Don’t serve bread with a bowl of olive oil with a swirl of balsamic vinegar as an appetizer (or any other part of the meal).

Back to my first experience: I was so enchanted by the new food presentation, I never forgot the moment.

Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco - where I first broke the Rule
Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco – where I first broke the Rule

It was my first dinner at Farallon, that fantasmagorical Paul Kuleto restaurant in San Francisco. Sitting under the jellyfish chandelier, I watched with curiosity as our waiter presented with a flourish a thin sliced baguette of warm sourdough bread and a bowl of deep green extra virgin olive oil. But he didn’t stop there. 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.

It is a true talent to be able to swirl
It is a true talent to be able to swirl

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 (I can’t remember if he actually said “aceto balsamico”) and pop it into one’s mouth. I caught on immediately and for the next ten years or so I savored bread dipped in olive oil throughout the fine restaurants of San Francisco and across the United States.

I always thought the idea was conceived at Farallon, but others claimed the genesis was at some Little Italy restaurant in San Francisco, and still others thought that Il Fornaio was the first. Certainly San Francisco was the first city to break the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil. (If anyone has evidence of the practice pre-1990 in another location, let me know.)

In 1998, I arrived in Italy and it was immediately apparent that there was absolutely no practice of setting bowls of olive oil on the table so customers could munch on bread before the antipasti arrived. In fact, then and now, there may not be bread on the table until the main course is served, but that is a story for another day (Italian Food Rule: Don’t Eat Bread with Pasta).

However, by the turn of the millennium, most Americans, including those from places like Iowa and Vermont, were hooked on olive oil and bread. They arrived in droves on Italian shores expecting to be served olive oil, bread and even that squiggle of balsamic vinegar in the trattorias and fine restaurants across Italy.

What usually happens if you don't practice your S design
Extra virgin olive oil & balsamic vinegar – (photo credit

In the beginning, Italian waiters (and restaurant owners) were simply confused – why all of this demand for olive oil when there was no food on which to put it? – but then they swiftly moved from being perplexed to being appalled.

Why appalled, you ask? Certainly Americans (and other tourists) have broken Italian Food Rules before, especially the ones regarding cappuccino, pizza, and ice cubes. But those infractions paled in comparison with what happened when Americans, olive oil, and bread were combined. It was a catastrophe: A tourist asks for bread. The waiter complies, sneering a bit because he knows that eating bread before a meal ruins the appetite and leads to fat. Then the tourist throws the waiter an impatient look and asks for the olive oil.

What do you see? A laughing baby? A beach babe? Old olive oil?
What do you see? A laughing baby? A beach babe? Old olive oil?

Now the waiter quits sneering and either says that there is no olive oil for the dining room (salads are dressed in the kitchen, pasta and veggies get their last splash from the chef; same with the main courses) or he brings a large bottle of olive oil – from the kitchen or the waiters’ service stand – to the table.

You say you still don’t understand the problem? Imagine the table in our hypothetical trattoria. Now there is a basket of bread and a bottle of olive oil in the center by the small candle or tiny floral centerpiece. There are four paper placemats, each topped with a knife and fork and a napkin. What do the Americans do? They have stretched to ask for pane and olio, using the right words. They have no further language resources or patience for piattino, ciotolina (or piccola ciotola), or any other tableware word, and frankly they are a bit miffed that the olive oil didn’t come served in a bowl.

So they take a slice of bread, place it on their paper placemat, and gingerly aim the spout of the large olive oil bottle at the center of the slice, trying desperately not to run over the crusty edges. Of course, olive oil, poured by even the most careful person, soaks through the light Italian bread, onto the placemat or napkin underneath.

The tourist is upset and embarrassed and the waiter is appalled and apoplectic. Now, add a hypothetical cotton tablecloth under our hypothetical paper placemats and you can see how the problem escalates. I do not exaggerate here for effect – I have seen both situations with my own eyes.

Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Twigs - Too Much Stuff
Olive oil, balsamic vinegar and rosemary twigs – too much stuff

There are a few good reasons for the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil. Fine Italian extra virgin olive oil – the only type to eat with bread – is expensive. To place a bowl of olive oil on the table in front of Italians guarantees the waste of excess oil because Italians don’t eat bread before they start their meal. (Some might argue that Americans will wipe the bowl clean, but remember Italian Food Rules were not created with Americans in mind.) Italians aren’t given to eating out of a communal bowl (dipping a hunk of bread in olive oil, taking a bite and then dipping it back in the same oil would cause Italian to go pale with visions of bacteria, viruses, etc.). There is the possibility of drips – Italians avoid potential messes. This list probably just skims the surface of reasons behind the Rule.

A waste of two expensive ingredients
A waste of two expensive ingredients

As for that S of aceto balsamico floating on the oil… There is probably an extra penalty for adding that to the crime. Italians do not put balsamic vinegar on bread. Italians do not make a salad dressing with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (red wine vinegar only). Traditional aceto balsamico is wildly expensive, exquisitely good and should never be wasted or drowned in olive oil.

But if oil and bread together is so good, why don’t the Italians give in? Well, Italians do eat bread with extra virgin olive oil on top. The dish is called fettunta from fetta (slice) and unta (oily) – an “oily slice”. The bread is not dipped in oil. A slice of bread is toasted (preferably over a flame), rubbed while still warm with a halved clove of fresh garlic, and placed on a plate. Fresh extra virgin olive oil is poured over the slice of bread and salt is added to taste. It is difficult to find this dish in a restaurant because it is considered simple home food, not worthy of a dining experience and difficult to price since it is basically a slice of bread with a splash of olive oil.

Fettunta - No dipping needed. No violation of the Italian Food Rule.
Fettunta – No dipping needed. No violation of the Italian Food Rule.

When in Italy, save the dipping of bread in olive oil for a formal tasting of the year’s new oil in December and January when the purpose is not to eat a lot of bread, but just to taste a variety of fabulous just pressed extra virgin olive oils. Keep the practice out of your restaurant experience while touring Italy and perhaps, give it up at home to avoid violating the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil.


Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

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Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

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115 thoughts on “Italian Food Rule – Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil

  1. For the author, ignore the nay sayers. There is some differences between north and south Italian cuisine and dipping bread oil not being done in the north, fits well with the cuisine of my family from the north. I am not raising the difference to divide as I have half of my Italian genes from the north and the other half from the south. Being respectful of other cultures especially when you are in their country is a great idea. Just ask the impatient American born how they deal with foreignors. Every American should spend at least 1 solid year in another country as I did that and more. Experiencing culture shock does the character, soul and heart good…appreciate and celebrate differences rather than bashing. From what I have experienced not All Italians dip bread in oil nor eat bread with pasta. Ultimately, Nona wants smiling faces and full bellies thats the true goal of eating Italian food…good food, good company with lots of laughs and love to go around. Now that is a “good” meal. ❤️

  2. Let’s not bash Americans traveling either. Europe and America all have customs. I have been all over Italy and France and I have found plenty of rude waiters in both with a superior attitude. Be respectful to Those who don’t know the rules in restaurants, they are paying the bills. Not with “those stupid tourists” attitudes. I get the traditions
    Be patient and teach in humility

  3. Well, actually some Italians certainly have traditionally put olive oil and balsamic on bread ( or dipped); my Italian family , and in fact their whole village, have done it for a very, very long time ( I remember it from when I was 5 years old; I’m 61 now). Simply a variation when you don’t have the tomatoes, etc, with the olive oil and balsamic; you just go with the basics. Not such a big ‘ invention’ of some chef somewhere. You people.

  4. Actually, Anton, it’s an American perception imposed here. It has little to do with actuality. The usual.

  5. Hello,
    I’m italian from north-west of Italy and I’ve been dipping bread in olive oil and vinegar (or olive oil and salt) my whole life 😀
    First memory I have of it is during elementary school (around 1995). Asked my parents and confirmed that they used to do it too. Italian regions but also families have differents habits (maybe the parents are themselves from different regions ) and the rules are not that strict. Anyway I’m pretty sure when I say that the restaurants mentioned in the article didn’t invent this practice, since it was already a common habit for many families.
    We can say that it’s not a real appetizer, we eat it as a middle- afternoon snack, or maybe at the restaurant while waiting for the appetizers or the main course to come (since in Italy there is very often brad on the table, and small bottles of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper available if you ask- so I’d say the restautants don’t serve it in the small bowl all the time, but al least what me and my friends/relatives use to do is if we feel up to it we pour some oil on the dish and dip the brad in it).

    Anyway interesting article;)

  6. >>> he waiter complies, sneering a bit because he knows that eating bread before a meal ruins the appetite and leads to fat. <<<

    What does this last bit mean? That it “leads to fat”? I don’t think eating bread before a meal especially leads to [accumulated] fat, unless the calories are very high and perhaps through overeating. But bread dipped in oil is usually just as an appetizer, right? You are not supposed to consume tons of the stuff. So what you write is odd.

    Can you clarify?

  7. Early in the 1940s my grandmother always served a small bowl of near-syrupy and near-green olive oil flavored with salt, pepper, peperoncini, and sliced garlic; in the summer months, she always tossed in some rosemary sprigs. When I opened my first restaurant 30 years later, I always served small bowls of seasoned EVOO instead of butter (needless to say, it did cause somewhat of a surprise to diners expecting to find butter served with my homemade bread). I never served butter at my tables, only seasoned olive oil, all through my restaurant career which I ended in 2013.
    To say Tuscans don’t dip bread into olive oil may be so. But my grandparents who came here from southern Italy never used butter as a table spread. And we did eat bread with pasta. And we used the crusts to wipe the last morsels of sauce from the bottoms of our plates.

  8. I’m really sorry to say that but it’s very common dipping bread in olive oil or olive oil and salt or olive oil and the white wine vinegar. As a native I know it very well and we also have panini with only olive oil salt and oregano as filling.

  9. I’ve been to Rome, Milan, Vatican City, Pompeii, Florence, etc. I also come from an Italian family (Gaimari) and the practice of dipping bread in Olive Oil is 100% practiced in Italy. This entire article is a fallacy.

  10. This is a pompous article. My wife’s parents are both Italian and live in Milan, as do most of her aunts an uncles, nearly none of whom have ever been to San Francisco. We dip bread in olive oil all the time when we’re with them.

  11. This was a bit harsh. We’re obviously travelling to Italy because we love the food and culture. Don’t tell me what I can or can’t put on my food, in Italy or any other place for that matter. If I want ketchup on my top ramen, I’ll have it. Thank you.

  12. I completely think that because the regions of Italy vary so much, with dialects, customs and certainly food that perhaps the oil and bread dipping might have been a practice in some regions. My grandparents were from Calabria and at no time in my life was bread and an oil dipping dish ever served, by them, my aunts and uncles or my dad.

  13. Olive oil with bread is a tradition dating back to ancient Rome. It’s about as deep of a tradition as anything that exists.

  14. From Australia — Melbourne, restaurants here have been doing the olive oil thing for atleast 40 years.

    I was going to local Italian restaurants at bowling clubs that had oil on the table.
    Its really weird how American’s think they invented everything.

    I’d always thought it was a Greek thing.

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