When I was a boy, we often had bread in the house... 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. When we had pasta, 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 out 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 ladle-ful of sauce on a slice for a pre-meal snack.
Little did I know what we were doing was carrying on an Italian tradition in dining--fare la scarpetta (making the shoe). Scarpetta means shoe in Italian. And to fare la scarpetta means tearing off a piece of bread to mop up the sauce or juices left on your plate, help in getting your food onto the fork or spoon. 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 a scarpetta? Curiously, it is ciabatta, which literally means slipper.
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 there.
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 sop up the juices and olive oil on their hands, plates and even the table... and 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 poor Southern culture, some areas of Italy consider using a scarpetta bad taste, even though it tastes good (sorry). 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, I'll suggest that it's the only way to get some flavor out of 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.
Go ahead, fare la scarpetta e mangia bene!
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