When I was a boy, we always had bread in our home. My Dad worked as a Deli man most of his life and would bring home beautiful Italian breads that he used to make cold cut and meatball sandwiches. In typical 1950s style, my Mom would keep loaves of white bread in what she called her "All-American house".
When we had pasta with "gravy", we'd tear off some bread to use at the end of the meal to clean up the plate. Even when we had meat, like a roast beef, the bread would come out and we'd soak up "the blood" (the drippings) that oozed out of the meat in the bottom of the serving platter. If we had soup or a stew, the bread would work its way to the end of a meal to clean our plates. And if my Mom was making Sunday Gravy, we'd get out the bread, even if all we had was sliced Wonder Bread (ugh), and smear a ladleful of sauce on a slice for a pre-meal snack.
Why scarpetta (little shoe)?
Wouldn't it be better to call it scopa (mop)?
Little did I know what we were doing was carrying on an Italian tradition in dining--fare la scarpetta (making the slipper/shoe). Scarpetta means shoe in Italian. And to fare la scarpetta a tavola, means tearing off a piece of bread at the table to mop up the sauce or juices left on your plate, help in getting your food onto the fork or spoon. In my father's poor childhood--growing up in a Hoboken tenement with a large family--there weren't enough forks or spoons to go around, so using bread as a scarpetta was a necessity to lift bites of food out of the large communal bowl my grandmother would place in the middle of their table.
Nothing goes to waste in Italy, and especially in the impoverished South where my parents came from, one would never leave anything on their plate. Food was life itself. After all, not wasting food is being furbo. And in the South, they don't shy way from having bread with pasta, like they do in the North. What is the preferred type of bread for use as a scarpetta? Curiously, it is ciabatta, which literally means slipper, but any crusty bread will do.
Some say that the expression scarpetta comes from the fact that a torn piece of bread looks like a little shoe. I prefer to think that it really refers to wiping your feet... as wiping the bottom of the plate. Because of the extreme poverty suffered by many of our Southern Italian ancestors, others think scarpetta refers to being so hungry that one would eat the soles of their shoes. Sadly, there is historic evidence of desperate people doing just that, so perhaps there is some truth here.
However, the tradition of using bread to clean up plates goes back to the time of the Romans. I remember reading in my Latin study book how Romans would use bread after a meal to clean their hands--soaking up the juices and olive oil on their hands--and also cleaning the bowls and the table. They would then pop the soppy bread into their mouths. Again, furbo... nothing is wasted. Fare la scarpetta is an ancient tradition indeed.
Perhaps because of its links to Southern culture and Cucina Povera, some areas of Italy consider using a scarpetta bad taste, even though its taste is actually pretty good. Most do it at home or in more casual trattoria and less in more chic ristoranti. But they all do it. And if someone tells you that they don't do it in Tuscany... nonsense. In fact, it's one of the only ways to add flavor to their saltless Tuscan bread. (That stuff is so dry on your palette without salt!) You'd be well served to consider Tuscan bread more of an eating tool, like a spoon or fork, than a bread for eating by itself.
You can also do what many Italians do and consider the philosophical meaning of the phrase, fare la scarpetta:
Live life fully.
Never leave crumbs behind.
Soak up everything that life puts in front of you.
My son, Lucas loves the animated film Ratatouille, and so do Lisa and I. It's a wonderful jaunt through a vintage Parisian kitchen through the eyes of "Little Chef", a rodent who loves to cook. After seeing the film, Lucas wanted to make ratatouille, so we set out to do a rustic, delicious version and have made it many times since.
But ever since re-discovering our Italian roots during our Grand Voyage of Italy, we have been concentrating more on Italian recipes. Well, this time we though we'd combine the best of both worlds--French country cuisine with the height of Italian culinary skills--in the making of a great risotto. I think we succeeded with our Ratatouille & Risotto. It's perfect for autumn or winter--a stick to your ribs supper. But this dish has two distinct personalities... the obvious simplicity of making the ratatouille--basically a vegetarian peasant stew--and the technically demanding risotto.
For the Ratatouille
Ratatouille is a very basic vegetable stew made in Provence and around Nice in southern France. It uses several basic ingredients: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onion and pepper. There are many variations on the recipe, but the one I use is fairly rustic and traditional.
1 large Vidalia (sweet) onion - diced
1 bell pepper, diced
2 medium sized eggplant-skinned, cut into 3/4 -1" cubes,
(the larger the eggplant, the more seeds and more bitterness)
5-6 whole garlic cloves
3-4 young, slim zucchini - skin on, sliced once lengthwise, then into 3/4" half moon slices,
(smaller & younger are more sweet and less seedy)
1-16 ounce can of diced tomatoes (I use Del Monte, oregano & basil spiced, in summer use fresh heirloom paste tomatoes)
1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
1/4 cup port wine
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon rubbed sage
3 bay leaves (remove after cooking!)
40 cracks of fresh pepper (from a pepper mill, fine grind)
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Olive oil for sauteing
For the Risotto
We mainly use Arborio rice when we make risotto, but even better is if you can find Canaroli rice--it makes an even creamier risotto and is a bit more forgiving. The trick with making risotto is patience. It can take the better part of an hour or more--constantly adding broth and stirring--until the starchy exterior of the rice breaks down enough to make a creamy risotto, while still keeping a pasta-like "tooth" in the cooked rice. You don't want any crunch, there shouldn't be any mushy rice, and the texture when finished should be loose, glistening and creamy. While there are some tricks for making risotto faster, but there's no substitute for a strong arm and standing at the stove top for up to an hour...
2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
2 tablespoons light olive oil
1 medium sweet onion (or half a large Vidalia)-diced finely
1 cup dry white wine (Frascati or Pinot Grigio, or one of your choice)
6 cups of chick or vegetable broth, heated in a saucepan (for ladling into the rice)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1-1/4 cups of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (plus additional for topping off the dish)
Toward the end, you will notice the starch in the rice being released to make a creamy consistency. Occasionally, taste the rice to make sure it is cooked through while still having a little bit of "tooth". You do not want it mushy, but you don't want crunch on individual grains. You will also know when the rice is nearing completion when you experience a sort of "wave" when you stir the rice, making a circular motion with the flat edge of your spoon around the bottom of the pan. Italian chef's call this the all'onda (wavy) effect. When your spoons passes and the rice behind it slides back in a slow motion like a silky wave, the risotto is at the right texture.
Some recipes say that this will take only 30-35 minutes, but I have found it takes me 45-65 minutes until the rice is cooked and getting creamy. Risotto should be served immediately when completed, so timing is key. But in the event you have to let your risotto sit for a bit, just leave covered, unheated... then before serving, revitalize it by heating it with a little bit more hot water on a medium low flame until the water is incorporated and it has reached the "wave" stage once again.
To service, place a portion of the risotto on your plates and add some ratatouille on top, toward one side (let the creamy risotto show itself off too). You decide to have a hearty Italian Chianti or a nice French Bordeaux with the dish... after all, it does have a split-personality.
I'd also like to add that the risotto recipes used in this dish is a basic risotto recipe. Once you learn how to make this, you can experience with adding all sorts of other things into the risotto... mushrooms, saffron, peas, shrimp, etc. And the ratatouille recipe is great topping a pizza, with pasta or even as a filling for a stuffed baked potato!
Copyright 2016, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved