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 summertomato.com)

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.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

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

  1. On the point of hygiene. Why not put small individual bowls of Olive Oil on the table. Problem solved! I think this rule is more financially based. If people fill up on bread and oil, they are less likely to buy as much main or desert = less $$$’s spent! After all, they are trying to run a business!

  2. I’m amazed at these comments. So, there are food rules in Italy (and they differ depending on the region). Get over it. If one travels just to see stuff, go for it. If one wants to learn about the culture, then learn the culture and enjoy! I’ve been traveling to Italy for 30+ years and now live here. I’ve never seen oil served with bread, nor cheese served with a pasta dish containing any fish or seafood. So what? Just because Americans will eat anything placed in front of them doesn’t mean other cultures do the same, nor should we Americans expect them to do so. I was having dinner in the home of an Italian family and a basket of bread was placed on the table. I took a piece of bread to have with my pasta dish and the mother about fainted (the bread was for later). OK, what’s the big deal? Well, if I want to agitate my hosts in their own home, I’ll just ignore them. I say, “Go with the flow.” Whatever it is, you’ll get over it.

  3. Hi!
    IDK if italians has caught up with this or have just give in, but ive lived in Rome for a month and a half now, and been eating out every day. The only times ive not been given bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar in front of a dish; is when I dine alone and order something gluten free.

  4. Look in the Bible at Ruth 2:14 for an early instance of dipping bread into vinegar. This would be about 500BC or so.

  5. For what it’s worth, my grandfather was Croatian (still Mediterranean) and was born before the turn of the century. He would relish pouring some good olive oil into a dish, add some salt and enjoy enjoy a few pieces of fresh bread with it. It was an activity brought from the old country and well before avant garde Italian joints began to open up. .

  6. Well if this is true, then I’m glad I don’t live in Italy! Balsamic + olive oil + bread is one of my all time favorite treats. Although I adhere mostly to a carb-restricted diet, I do indulge in this appetizer on occasional weekends & at restaurants. The whole Italian rule against it just sounds way too pretentious and fussy for me. Also, it is an excellent way to prevent a hangover!! If you snack on this mixture before or while drinking any type of alcohol, you will not suffer from headaches and nausea the next day.

  7. I’ve traveled all over the world and have had wonderful foods from all over. A favorite was bread dipped in balsamic vinegar & olive oil decades ago in NYC. To die for! Who cares if this isn’t a “traditional” Italian dish? It’s a brilliant Italian-American invention that I celebrate to this day. Like I do many X-American foods. Italians, get over yourselves.

  8. Hubby lived in Italy late in the 1950’s. They ate bread (daily) dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar poured into a small bread plate. Sometimes this WAS the meal but it was served with other meals too. He introduced me to this yummy delight in the 70’s.

    Olive oil is/was generously used in every dish … like water. Heck, they might even add it to cereal. There is no dipping tabu in Italy unless it was invented by snooty Americans.

    Now in France it was quite another story when it came to dipping and eating with fingers . I remember eating an apple with a knife and fork… in 1972.

  9. So you Italian’s don’t even sop up the homemade sauce with a piece of bread? Oh dio!
    They’re not true Italians. When things are homemade, nothing is wasted. Losers.

  10. If we place the argument about whether Italians really do dip bread into olive oil or not to the side for a moment, consider that there is a host of Mediterranean countries that have overlapping menu items to Italians. I remember reading a National Geographic from the 1970s on southern Spain and they talked about a typical Andalusian breakfast of fresh bread dipped in olive oil. Recall also Mike’s earlier comment about his Croatian grandfather’s practice of dipping bread into olive oil.

    So whether or not there is a rule that forbids this practice for Italians, this is for sure: some people in the Mediterranean do it!

  11. This is total X@#$%& &*(#$% X 1,000,000,000,000,000.

    Every Italian sops up their bread in a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
    You can add rosemary if you’d like as well, to get a taste of a greenery aroma enhancement of flavour.

    Also to mention. Sliced Roma tomatoes, bocconcini (mozzarella cheese ball), fresh basil leaves. Drizzled with olive oil, and then sprinkled with a touch of salt and also cracked black pepper.

    Which this exactly compares to is like, like telling an Italian, any sauce left over in your pasta bowl can’t be sopped up with a beautiful piece of crusty, hard, and rich Italian bread.

  12. My best friend was born and raised in Italy. They have bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar with dinner almost every night

  13. Where did the authour get this insane idea. I have been eating bread like this all my life. Please address the comments in this page of people saying this. Where did you find this “rule”?

  14. I completely disagree with everything this article mentions. Being Italian and living in Italy 6 months out of the year, I have never heard of a “Italian Rule” to not dip your bread in olive oil. Bread and Oil is a fixture to Italians at dinner time. Dinner is not what you would think though. Compared to the U.S, the biggest meal of the day in Italy is lunch time. Dinner is a smaller meal consisting of bread, meats, cheeses, olives, etc. I have been served bread in a basket also and on a plate. There is no “Bread bowl” rule either. The whole point of sitting down and enjoying a meal with one another to Italians is that it’s made simple, nothing fancy. Now my home is located in Southern Italy, Northeast of Potenza to be exact, and maybe the culture is a bit different than larger populated areas. The premise is all the same, unless your in a restaurant. If your enjoying friends and family, dip your bread as much as you want in your olive oil, then grab another piece of bread from the “bread bowl”. Also an fyi, Italians in Italy DO NOT put balsamic vinegar mixed with their olive oil. That is an American-ized version, and is good in it’s own way if that is your thing.

  15. The misconnection between commenters here is that this is regional. That’s why some patrons of Italy can not relate to tradition and history in other areas of Italy. No different than traditions and routines within New Orleans. There is no rule like this in Italy. If there were rules one thing is certain. Rules are meant to be broken. Dip away.

  16. Americans generally bastardize everything in a particular way to maintain how fat and ridiculous looking they are, especially compared to the populace of European countries like Italy. So in this case, yeah Americans start first with bread, they dip the bread in god awful weird ways, and they fill their stomachs with it. Whereas in Europe, portions are smaller, bread is never emphasized and for good reason. And you never start a meal with empty starchy carbs which are basically sugar. Leave it to Americans to fatten everything up and make every ethnic diet unhealthy.

  17. I can’t speak to the culinary history of bread and olive oil, but this article’s claim that this practice is unheard of in Italy is simply not true. I grew up in a military family and lived in Italy for 8 years. Bread and olive oil (with herbs or balsamic) was literally everywhere. It was pervasive in Southern Italy where I lived and I definitely saw it on the table in Tuscany and other mid-regions as well.

  18. What a load of rubbish!!! Part italian i have lived all over and know quite a few genuine italian chefs…..eating snobbery….is all i can say balsamic on toasted/grilled bread is beaut and my mother 100% italian lives on bread/olive oil… and jeez we even eat with our fingers!!!

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