Tag Archives: Balsamic Vinegar

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:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

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

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

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

Italian Food Rule – No Gaudy Dressing, Keep Salad Simple

To dress a salad in Italy is simplicity itself: bring a bowl of salad greens (preferably one to three varieties of radicchio tossed together – that’s all) to the table, add some of the best extra-virgin olive oil available, a small splash of red-wine vinegar or lemon juice, a generous sprinkle of salt and a bit of pepper; toss again and serve on a salad plate (don’t infect the leafy greens with left-over pasta sauce or juice from the ossobuco.)

Fresh greens are all a salad needs
Fresh greens are all a salad needs

The only debate is whether inexpensive balsamic vinegar (not the traditional DOP stuff from Modena) is an acceptable substitute for red-wine vinegar. Purists would say emphatically “No” but the number of Florentine neighborhood restaurants that bring the sweeter version of vinegar to the table seems to argue for, at least, an acceptable option to the Food Rule.

Add a bit of good olive oil and red-wine vinegar
Add a bit of good olive oil and red-wine vinegar

Italian Dressing, known and loved in the United States (as well as Canada, the U.K and most of the British colonies), is a vinaigrette-type salad dressing, consisting of water, vinegar or lemon juice, vegetable oil, chopped bell peppers, usually sugar or corn syrup, and various herbs and spices including oregano, garlic, fennel, dill and salt. Onion and garlic is often added to intensify the dressing’s flavor. Usually it is bought bottled or prepared by mixing oil and vinegar with a packaged flavoring mix consisting of dehydrated vegetables and herbs.

Zesty dry Italian salad dressing flakes
Zesty dry Italian salad dressing flakes

North American-style Italian dressing, and especially Creamy Italian, which consists of the same ingredients, but with buttermilk or mayonnaise added to make it creamy, is not acceptable to the Italian palate. (“Che schifo” or Che esagerazione!” says Francesca.) Don’t ask for it in a restaurant in Italy or particularly from the cook in an Italian home.

At home in many American refrigerators
At home in many American refrigerators

Needless to say, you will also not find the following dressings in any Italian kitchen: Thousand Island, Ranch, Blue Cheese, Russian, Louis, Honey Dijon, French, Ginger Honey, and, perhaps surprising, Caesar Dressing

Caesar Dressing is much more American than Italian. The most reliable story of its origins reports that Caesar Cardini created the salad and its dressing in Mexico.

Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing croutons and Parmesan cheese
Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing croutons and Parmesan cheese

Caesar (born Cesare) came from near Lago Maggiore. He and his brother Alex emigrated to the U.S. after World War I. The Cardini’s lived in San Diego, but operated a restaurant in Tijuana to circumvent Prohibition. According to Caesar’s daughter Rosa, on July 4th 1924 the salad was created on a busy weekend at Caesar’s Restaurant. It is said that Caesar was short of supplies and didn’t want to disappoint the customers so he concocted this salad with what was on hand: romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese (another Food Rule, coming soon), lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and black pepper. To add a bit of flair, he prepared it at the table.

That last bit was the only thing truly Italian about Caesar Salad – a salad should be dressed at the table or right before it comes to the table – the greens should never sit soaking in the olive oil and vinegar.

Radicchio with a bit of frisee greens
Radicchio with a bit of frisee greens

Try being Italian for awhile – leave the salad dressing bottles in the fridge and simply add a bit of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to some fresh leafy salad greens. You may be surprised by what you taste for the very first time.

Mangia! Mangia! – Gelato Crostini Anyone?

One of the highlights of this summer was an invitation to spend two days at Carpigiani Gelato University, located just outside Bologna, on the historic Via Emilia, between Lavino di Mezzo and Anzola dell’Emilia.

48 hours of just thinking about gelato and, of course, tasting flavor after flavor of sorbet, semifreddo, granita, frozen yogurt, soft-serve, as well as, traditional Italian gelato.

Gelato Maestro Luigi Perrucci
Gelato Maestro Luigi Perrucci

At the Gelato Lab, Carpigiani’s freestanding high-tech gelateria, two brand new flavors of gelato were introduced to the world on July 20 during the presentation of the 2011 Gelato Pioneers (more about this later).

The two fascinating flavors were created by Gelato Maestro Luigi Perrucci in the Gelato Lab’s research and experimentation kitchen, using the most innovative of Carpigiani’s gelato and soft-serve machines.

Mortadella Gelato Crostini
Mortadella Gelato Crostini

The crowd cheered as a tray of Mortadella Gelato “crostini” was presented. Mortadella is one of Bologna’s most famous foods, dating back five hundred years. Maestro Luigi chose to serve his mortadella gelato on a small round slice of bread and top it with a shaving of Parmesan cheese, a squiggle of balsamic vinegar and bit of shredded lettuce.

Made with a sorbet base, the pink gelato offered a true mortadella flavor without any fatty mouthfeel or aftertaste. The bread, balsamic, Parmesan and lettuce made it the perfect sandwich, albeit an icy cold one.

Balsamic Vinegar Gelato came from the soft serve machine
Balsamic Gelato from the soft serve machine

For dessert, Maestro Luigi offered a Balsamic Vinegar Soft Serve Gelato. Of the palest purple in color, made with a milk and egg base, the delightful swirl of gelato was sweet with a slight tangy aftertaste.

Balsamic vinegar is not vinegar per se. It begins with late-harvest grapes (usually white Trebbiano) grown near Modena. Traditional balsamic vinegar is thick and sweet and very very expensive.

Balsamic Vinegar Soft Serve
Balsamic Vinegar Soft Serve

Carpigiani is known for pushing the envelop of the tradition Italian gelato experience. The company seeks to bring Italian gelato to the whole world. Mortadella gelato may not find its way into any gelateria on a regular basis (except for perhaps Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco and on the Food Channel’s Iron Chef), but the balsamic vinegar soft serve is a keeper.