Yes, this is actually a list of rules for how and when to eat bread in Italy. You would think it would be straightforward, but eating bread in Italy is a topic that is almost as fraught as the whole ‘when to drink cappuccino’ thing. Last week, during our Week in Umbria tour, this seemed to be the most perplexing topic for our guests: When, how and why to eat bread? So I thought I’d answer some of those questions right here, right now.
Like many things in Italy, there are rules. And then there are exceptions to the rules.
1. Bread is meant to be eaten with other food. This means that when you sit down in a restaurant, the bread basket that arrives at the table is not meant as a pre-dinner snack. The bread is there to eat with your food (see rule #4below) And please do not ask for olive oil and a small bowl to dip it in. This is just not an Italian thing. And it is especially not an Italian thing to add balsamic vinegar to the bowl. Why? Because why on earth are you filling up on bread and olive oil even before the meal arrives? And that vinegar? It will totally ruin your taste buds for the rest of the meal.(Don’t worry, this is the nearest thing to a rant in this post)
2. Exception to Rule # 1: If the bread is toasted in the kitchen, and then drizzled with olive oil and brought to the table then by all means eat it. In this case it is considered an antipasto, called bruschetta, and you can go ahead and eat enjoy it with fear of breaking any laws.
3. Another Exception to Rule # 1: If the bread is in the form of focaccia or pizza bianca, and you buy it by the slice in a bakery, then not only can you eat it on its own, you can also eat it while walking around (usually another no no)
4. Bread is meant to be eaten with food, but NOT with pasta. Pasta is a starch, so do not eat bread (a starch) with pasta(another starch.) Only eat your bread with either your non-pasta first course (soup or antipasto), your main course (meat) or your side dish (vegetable). You are also allowed to, and expected to, use bits of your bread to help any non-pasta food up onto your fork.
5. Exception to Rule # 4 : If there is sauce left at the bottom of you plate of pasta then yes, you can use your bread to soak it up. In Rome this is called ‘fare la scarpetta’ and is particularly necessary when ordering pasta Amatriciana which is always heavily sauced. If you’re at a very fancy restaurant or dinner party, then think twice before doing it. But if other Italians are doing it, then swipe away.
6. While it would seem like Italians don’t stack up their carbs (see rule # 4) feel free to order a fried rice ball or even a bruschetta before you order a pizza. In fact, it’s kind of like a rule that you should order more carbs before your pizza, particularly fried ones.
7. Don’t throw away old bread. Italy is a country that has lived through two world wars, and the older generation will still cringe if you throw away a half consumed loaf of bread that has gotten stale. Instead? Make one of the many recipes that use up dried bread.
8. If you’re traveling in central Italy you may complain that the bread is tasteless because it contains no salt. Get over it. And also re-read rule # 1. Remember, bread is meant to be eaten with the food. And the food in some of these regions is very salty.
9. Italians aren’t big on toast in the morning. Instead they prefer a type of hard pre-baked toast-shaped thing called fette biscottate. I can’t even begin to explain the charms of this Italian breakfast food to you, since there are none. It’s a mystery to me.
10. The Breadstick exception: In theory these too are supposed to be eaten with a meal. But really? Almost everyone nibbles on them before the food arrives.
For more advice on how and what to eat in Italy you might be interested in my book Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City.
I have also published a series of apps, with my favorite restaurants in cities in Italy including Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Torino and more. Eat Italy is a free apps and is available on iTunes. Some cities are free and others are available as in-app purchases.