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May 29, 2013 10:02 AM

bread and oil -- Italy vs USA

Please help me check out an impression -- I've been to Italy several times and eaten in a variety of restaurants in several cities and towns, but I do not remember that being offered bread and a dish of oil at the beginning of the meal was a regular feature of the dining experience.

In the USA, however, this has become one of the defining marks of an Italian restaurant that wants to be taken seriously.

Sometimes, its just oil, sometimes its oil with ground pepper, sometimes oil with a bit of balsamic vinegar, sometimes the oil shares space with fresh herbs. Once, it was -- for variety's sake -- a dish of really good tomato sauce.

Sometimes the bread is crusty, sometimes not, but there is always bread and a dipping sauce.

If this is a feature of restaurant dining in Italy, please tell me where, or how I might have missed it.

If it is -- as I think I remember -- a feature of Italian restaurants only in the USA, does anyone know how it got started and why it has become a standard feature, especially in Italian restaurants that want so desperately to appear authentically Italian?

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  1. I share your impression. Most of the time the bread in italy comes out without oil - or butter. I think its mainly there to mop up sauce and not to be a course in itself!

    1. It is an authentic Italian feature.

      One can find it in Italy here and there, and in the Ticino region of Switzerland. Usually Balsamico Tradizionale and Olio Extra Virgene served with, or in a small plate, as you have described.

      1. Here in Umbria you will only see bread and oil together at the beginning of a meal during the olive harvest/"olio nuovo" period (October/November) as everyone always wants to try the freshly pressed olive oil on bruschetta. Other than that, olive oil is always placed on the table for use strictly as a condiment to drizzle on pasta or meat dishes, and as Jen said, the bread is mainly to "mop up the sauce."

        1. I clearly remember being served bread with little dishes of olive oil in Florence years ago. It was my first encounter with peppery, bitter Tuscan oil, a taste for which I've since acquired.

          1. Hmmmm . . . I did some googling and found this discussion:


            In short, the author says that when he "arrived in Italy in 1998, 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."

            Interesting . . . . .