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Olive Oil with Bread

Do Italian Restaurants in Italy ever serve dipping oil or olive oil with bread for dipping? I am just curious because there is a discussion on the general chowhounding topics that say this rarely, if ever, is done in Italy only in the U.S.

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  1. Ive not seen it that I can recall. More likely to use bread to sop up oil from oil-marinated appetizers, soup, sauces, etc.

    1. Olive oil is certainly eaten with bread, but the preprandial dipping dish is American. At most, in Italy, in order to taste a specific oil to see whether you like it, you might pour some onto a plate and sop it up. Or you would pour it directly onto the bread, but only just enough to taste.

      Just think about it. Pouring a whole little bowlful of olive oil and eating oil-saturated bread is wasteful and fills you up before even the pasta arrives. My unconfirmed theory is that when the demographics of Italian restaurants in the US began to shift from Italian-American to Italian, which was about the same time these little dipping dishes began to appear, the American clients were not ready for the Italian practice of eating bread without butter. In order to provide some grease for the bread without conceding the butter, the restaurants devised this compromise. Entirely my theory. If anyone has specific knowledge, I would love to know. But just the other night I asked my friend Oretta Zanini De Vita, food historian and walking encyclopedia of Italian food, and she said no, it is not an Italian practice.

      You do pour little bowls of oil for pinzimonio, i.e., crudités, but there it is serving as a sort of salad dressing, which is a legitimate use of oil.

      1. When I have been in restaurants in Italy and there has been olive oil and bread on the table at the same time (not unusual) I have often poured a little oil onto a plate and dipped the bread.

        No one has ever objected!

        1. From my extensive time spent in Venice and limited travels to other areas in Italy, I've rarely encountered olive oil served for bread dipping. As for the United States, I first encountered this around the mid 80's. Before then, butter was traditionally served with bread. By then, butter, being a saturated fat, has acquired a label of being unhealthy, while monounsaturated fats, especially olive oil was touted as having health benefits. Jumping on this and with the help of savvy Italian import food promotions, mid priced Italian restaurants such as Il Fornaio in San Francisco began placing a small bowl of olive oil instead of butter on the tables.

          1. I've come across it in about 3 restaurants in Sicily, all of which are involved in the production of the olive oil they serve. I don't know if this is a traditional thing or whether it has started following US influence. The implication in one of the places is that they had been doing this for ages.

            1 Reply
            1. re: ali patts

              Italian or not,politically correct or not----->>>>I really like it.
              I eat tons of it regularly.
              Why should we change it in Italy?Just to not look like a tourist?
              Gimme a break.No matter what we do,we always gonna be tourists outside home.And we are that.Fact.

              PS. I'm not American.

            2. No they don't what they do, do is when the bread is done baking they brush coat the loaf and put it in for a bit longer, in other areas like croatia they tend to add sugar to the bread aswell, which has the most amazing arouma

              1. In my travel through Italy over the years, I've never ever seen olive oil on a plate for bread, though I witnessed a Gringo once ask for it -- whereupon saying simultaneously "I'm a Gringo" and "I don't like the way you folks do it here". Two judgements, which may be over acerbic:

                1. M Fant is quite correct: this is a Gringo thing, and this ruins a meal, stuffing one (in the American, not British, meaning of "stuffing"!) before one even has one's antipasto. (Equally ruining is heavy booze before a meal, another Gringo vice.). I add that an appetizer ought prepare one for the next course, or at least clean the palate. Does bread soaked in olive oil really do this? Would a Rossini overture do as a prelude to _Parsifal_?

                2. Just as if one want everything at the table to be as at mom's, then one should stay home and eat with mom, so also if one wants it done as in America, one ought vacate there. It seems to me that the very pleasure -- if not the very rationale -- of traveling at all is to experience what cannot be experienced at home. I tell Americans that if all they want is sun n' fun, vast open spaces, and steak and fries, then Myrtle beach, Wyoming, and Kansas City, respectively, are a lot cheaper than travel abroad.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Sid R

                  2nd thoughts: "Gringo" might be too pejorative and derogatory; strike and insert "US-American" to my post above.

                2. Hmmm, didn't know that it's not Italian. I'm English, and I do it sometimes, especially with balsamic and olive oil. Might fill you up, but if it tastes good then that's the point, right?

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Soop

                    Well, that's the point if you eat it at home as a snack, but as the start of a whole meal, it's not a great idea.

                    1. re: mbfant

                      Isn't that kind of the point of bread (in any culture): Filling you up a bit so the main course goes farther amongst more?

                      1. re: shanagain

                        True. I mean I don't think I'd leave the main, but I know how much I can eat.

                        1. re: Soop

                          the point is not really whether its a good idea but whether serving oil as a condiment for bread is customary in modern day restaurant dining in italy. You can get toasted bread doused in oil as an appetizer sometimes and some bruschette have olive oil - also of course panzanella. Its not. Id say wait til you have some juice on your plate to sop up and use the bread for that. What we do at home and what tastes good (I like mustard on sliced steak for example) is not necessarily what we want to be doing when we are visiting someone else's culture.

                    2. re: Soop

                      No. I didnt know that this isnt Italian in origin - although I've certainly seen it in several places in Italy (where it comes with balsamic as well). And, of course, as Soop says, very common in the UK as a cheap "amuse". In Spain, I would normally drizzle my bread with oil from the bottle on the table, rather than having a little dipping bowl. But then, for me, a meal without bread is a poor meal.

                      1. re: Soop

                        I'm with Soop here - I'm a bread girl. A serious bread girl. Olive oil or no, if the bread is good, I'd rather fill up on that and take home the rest of my main as leftovers, or even skip the main altogether. I adore good bread; pasta, I can live without sometimes.

                      2. Whether Italians dip bread in olive oil is just a matter of history. If you read Julius Caesar's "The Gallic Wars", you'll find that he is appalled that the Gauls (modern day French and Belgians) use butter on bread rather than the more civilized olive oil. To him, a meal of bread, cheese, olives and oil was as good as it gets - he was definitely not an epicure.

                        So, dipping bread in olive oil has a very old history. If modern day Italians do not dip bread in oil it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done or has never been done. Rather, it is just out of vogue.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: DNA481

                          Good point actually. I'm quite a fan of historic fiction, and authors are often fastidious about researching what a people drank and ate and how they did so. Oh, there's another question!

                          1. re: Soop

                            The book I'm referring to is a compilation of Caesar's actual letters from Gaul. I have also read Colleen McCullough's series of books about Julius Caesar and agree with you that they are a great way to really understand history and be entertained at the same time. She does a great job with her research into Rome.

                            1. re: DNA481

                              The ones I last read were by Conn Iggulden, and they were really good. Some of it is skewed, which he does admit, but it lead me to do a little research anyway

                              1. re: Soop

                                Medicus by Ruth Downie (about a doctor in Roman Britain) is very enjoyable as well (although food plays a very small role in it, and olive oil on bread is not discussed!).

                                1. re: buttertart

                                  I'm reading the Boudica series by Manda Scott. Totally enthralling, I can't put it down!!!!!

                                  1. re: Soop

                                    Will look for those. Have you read Rose Tremain's historical fiction? Truly amazing (on later periods, Music and Silence is especially good). TAll of her novels are excellent. Quite a lot about food in her books as well.

                                    1. re: buttertart

                                      I'm nearly finished on this last book, but a friend has a trilogy about Gengis Khan to lend me after. However, I'll try and look you up after that and get some recommendations from you if you don't mind?

                                      Also, I need to devote a little more time to video games somewhere in between...

                                      1. re: Soop

                                        My email is on my profile, feel free, always happy to talk about books as well (and we may get booted here for being naughty and of-topic).

                          2. re: DNA481

                            I really, really dislike olives and ollive oil, unless they are among many other ingredients to lessen their taste. When at an Italian restaurant, I try to make a pre-emptive request for butter but usually the bread and olive oil are already in hand when the server first approaches the table, and then you're lucky if you get butter with less than a 10-minute wait. I wish they'd either offer both automatically, or ask the diner's preference and promptly comply.

                          3. My family is Portuguese and I can remember bringing my grandmother to an upscale Italian restaurant in Hartford for her birthday one night. We sat down in the restaurant and the waiter came out with the bread and the olive oil which he poured into saucers around the table with a great flourish. She looked very happy and leaned over to my father, whispered something to him in Portuguese and they both proceeded to laugh at the comment.
                            When the waiter had left, I asked what was so funny and my father replied "Your grandmother is amused that in such a fancy restaurant, they serve olive oil instead of butter with the bread. You see, in Portugal, only the poor eat their bread with olive oil because they can't afford butter".