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bread and oil -- Italy vs USA

j
jnwall May 29, 2013 10:02 AM

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?

  1. m
    mexivilla Jun 3, 2013 05:19 AM

    Somebody must be oing it because I just read that the EU is trying to introduce a safety regulation banning it and open bottles or carafes of oil. They want restaurants to only serve sealed bottles like liquor miniatures. This is causing major complaints from oil producers and restaurants because of the cost.
    Everywhere "Nanny States".

    1. b
      barberinibee Jun 1, 2013 01:15 PM

      To respond to:

      "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?"

      How about this for a wild, unintellectual guess:

      Olive oil is absolutely delicious, and Americans loved returning to restaurants where they could practically drink the stuff, uncomplicated by any other flavor?

      I've also been served dishes of olive oil in Spanish restaurants, and Greek restaurants in the US.

      For years and years, most Americans never got to taste olive oil at all, let alone good olive oil. And finally they did. And they fell on it. No surprise to me. The better restaurants in the US serve the better olive oils. I don't think they serve it because they are trying to look authentically Italian. If their customers didn't like it, they'd stop. They serve it because it tastes good and people like it and are willing to pay for it.

      6 Replies
      1. re: barberinibee
        b
        bob96 Jun 1, 2013 10:26 PM

        Given that, for the most part, the olive oil in those dipping dishes was usually the same tasteless, refined product that sat in salad cruets, and was not infrequently rancid, I think the appeal was in lubricating bread, lots of it, and not having to pay for it. This was also about the time most ordinary Italian American places stopped offering oily "garlic bread", which used to serve the same face-filling function. Not sure why one stopped seeing it. But many Americans have to start eating immediately at table, and here was an easy way to do it. Only good, extra virgin olive oil is delicious, and I can slurp it endlessly, but this was not, for the most part, what was happening at these tables. For years and years, yes, most Americans (even Italian Americans) consumed that same tasteless and sometimes badly made olive oil, and for years, this is what they often got (spiked in dipping dishes with musty dried oregano and cheap balsamic to add at least some flavor). It's often, but not always, different at the high end, but it's the rare place where I'm so pleased by the taste of a raw oil that I need ask the server what they're using.

        1. re: bob96
          a
          allende Jun 2, 2013 02:24 PM

          Bob,
          Everything you said was spot on. Just perfect.

          1. re: allende
            SWISSAIRE Jun 2, 2013 02:59 PM

            End of an era is upon us.

            The EU is now this week mandating that restaurants in EU member countries serve olive oil at each table ONLY in properly labeled bottles.

            No more " house specials, " which as Bob mentioned above occurred in historically in North America and Europe. Olive oil of dubious parentage mixed with grape seed oil, mixed with cooking oil, mixed with ?, and then set on the table and presented as " Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva della Casa. "

            And the restaurant owners are of course livid.

            1. re: SWISSAIRE
              a
              allende Jun 3, 2013 12:57 AM

              But the olive oil middle men here in Italy are ecstatic. Jumping for joy. Now they can sell their crap oil legally.

              Just more and more mistakes coming out of Brussels... every day. A bureaucracy gone wild. Next up... even more draconian rules on cheese, than currently exist.

              Cheese maker: "Gee, my family has been making cheese this way for four hundred years."

              Brussels: "Doesn't matter. We'll tell you how to make it, what you can and cannot do, how to store it, how to package it and most importantly how your label will have to say "pasteurized""

              1. re: allende
                jen kalb Jun 3, 2013 07:34 AM

                beaurocratic state answerable to nobody but in the pockets of big business

        2. re: barberinibee
          melpy Jun 3, 2013 04:52 AM

          In Spain we always ate bread and olive oil for breakfast.

        3. a
          allende May 31, 2013 11:49 PM

          Maureen said it best: "Olive oil in a dish, especially with aceto balsamico, is not Italian American. It is American. "

          And that aceto is absolutely guaranteed to be of poor quality. Very rarely will you find a "dipping" dish of oil and aceto here in Italy; in fact I've never seen it.

          Where you mainly find oil "for dipping" (what a terrible term!) is at those places that do not serve you anything while waiting for your first course (perhaps some superb focaccia as we had last night here east of Ferrara, or something a bit more substantial). "Better" places can build that into their pricing; those that are based on price, can't. This is not true 100% of the time, but is true most of the time.

          4 Replies
          1. re: allende
            mbfant Jun 1, 2013 01:27 AM

            Don't get me started on the whole vinegar question! People have practically forgotten the existence of red-wine vinegar. They think balsamico (almost always the junk, not the Tradizionale or even the upper-middle echelons) is the normal, default vinegar in Italy -- unfortunately restaurants are encouraging this misconception. Recently in New York I could hardly find wine vinegar in Trader Joe and Whole Foods. Today or tomorrow for lunch we will probably have fresh borlotti beans with red-wine vinegar, oil, and Tropea onion, maybe with some Sardinian tuna. Is there anything better? Suppose I had only balsamic in the house?

            1. re: mbfant
              b
              bob96 Jun 1, 2013 10:58 AM

              Thank you, Maureen. In the US, or New York at least, balsamic vinegar for most people did not exist, if memory serves, until the 1970s, when it started showing up in Italian American shops: after 1965, new waves of Italian immigrants re-populated old Italian neighborhoods in the city, and brought with them the day to day products they'd been using. You started seeing things like Barese foccaccie and ricotta forte, and also many mass-produced Italian things (like Mulino Bianco cookies, and industrial balsamic) that had not before been in the traditional Italian American pantry. I remember my Bensonhurst aunt, a great cook and even greater red wine vinegar aficionado, wonder one day what this balsamic stuff was. Thanks--I need to go now and also make that bean and tuna salad.

              1. re: mbfant
                b
                barberinibee Jun 1, 2013 01:05 PM

                In many of the places I travel in Italy, vinegar is not a popular dressing for anything in the local cooking. The default dressing is salt and olive oil. To the extent vinegar is provided in these places, sometimes it is red wine vinegar, sometimes it is balsamic vinegar. Not a lot of distinction is made because basically the locals don't favor it anyway.

                Most of the time I travel in Italy outside of Emilia-Romagna, the only time I encounter vinegar is when it is an intrinsic ingredient in the preparation of a special dish (agrodolce, carpione, etc). No doubt there are many places in Italy I haven't visited where red wine vinegar is an everyday thing on the table or to be used in dressings, but it has been noteworthy to me that in Italy that vinegar is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in France or America or Germany (mainly because I don't like vinegar or viniagrettes, so it has been a welcome relief).

                1. re: mbfant
                  melpy Jun 3, 2013 04:52 AM

                  My Italian grandmother would never have used balsamic. Always red wine vinegar.

              2. a
                acssss May 31, 2013 08:16 AM

                There is no such thing as Italian culture, feature or defining marks - it is like saying U.S. culture, feature or defining marks - but if you travel to NYC, New Orleans, L.A., Cleveland, Austin you will find completely different foods, breads, cultures and food behaviors. Italy is the same. People in each region eat different tasting foods, make bread differently and have different customs (even the language/sayings/slang is different). The act of serving a dish of oil on the side with balsamic vinegar and/or S&P is probably Italian American, but the act of serving olive oil with bread, pizza, pasta and many other foods is very common in many parts of Italy. Many times flavored with basil, garlic and other herbs.

                10 Replies
                1. re: acssss
                  SWISSAIRE May 31, 2013 01:44 PM

                  An accurate statement access.

                  Regional cooking in Lombardia is very different, as is the language, from cooking in Sicilia, or Friuli.

                  On the subject of oil, balsamico, and bread, I recall travelling with my parents to Italy in 1959 for a "first-crush" of olive oil our family had been invited to. The roads were somewhat spartan then, and by the time we finally arrived, the olives had already been crushed. We were served alfresco, pieces of bread, to dip into the new oil. There was no vinegar mixed with the oil, but there were a few small plates of it next to the oil on the table.

                  I can recall this quite clearly as by accident, and much to my embarrassment, I tipped over one of those plates, spilling it on the nice clean tablecloth.

                  And subsequently banished to the back seat of the car, to " contemplate the errors of my ways. "

                  1. re: SWISSAIRE
                    jen kalb May 31, 2013 01:54 PM

                    as maureen observes above, there is a big difference between an olive oil tasting at the crush - which you enjoyed - or oil-drenched bruschetta served as an antipasto - and the routine service of olive oil at table with bread.

                    Regardless of the regional differences in cuisine,which are very real, I havent seen oil served as a condiment for bread at local restaurants in any of the regions that I have visited, from the Veneto and LIguria down to Campania over the years. Im curious, are there any areas where this is a common practice??

                    1. re: jen kalb
                      b
                      barberinibee Jun 1, 2013 01:30 PM

                      "I havent seen oil served as a condiment for bread at local restaurants in any of the regions that I have visited. I'm curious, are there any areas where this is a common practice??"

                      I don't know if it is common in Puglia, but I encountered it in Puglia (at a place recommended by Luciano Pignataro).

                  2. re: acssss
                    mbfant May 31, 2013 02:11 PM

                    While I agree that Italy has more variety per square foot or meter than anyplace else on earth, I do not believe that there are no unifying themes in Italian culture, and I certainly believe in an Italian gastronomic culture -- with all its vast variety. Local differences, in Italy or in the US, don't preclude unifying features or themes. And as much as we talk about traditional Italian food, and I talk about it a lot, we must remember that Italian food is not static. It often takes conscious effort, often with research, to adopt the old ways.

                    Here is an excerpt from the forthcoming book "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way" (by Oretta Zanini De Vita and myself), if the moderators will permit:

                    "It is fashionable to say there is no such thing as Italian cooking—there is only Tuscan, Sicilian, Emilian, and so forth—but that is misguided. For all the unquestionable differences, for all the variations and local specialties, much unites Italian home cooks from the Alps to the islands. Modern communications and travel, to say nothing of the growing serious interest in traditional foods, are making more and more Italians aware of what the rest of the country eats. People buy national brands in chain supermarkets and shops. Television cooking shows are broadcast everywhere, and newsstands are full of glossy food magazines. Logistics has made it possible to supply inland Milan with the finest fish and for seaside Naples to make sauces with hare and boar meat. Thanks to the SlowFood Association, endangered food products from all over Italy have become of national interest. And everywhere in Italy, people are eating pasta, even where there is a stronger tradition of rice or polenta.
                    "The boundaries of the twenty Italian regions are largely political. Italian food scholars no longer speak of regional cuisines but of broad areas that may approximate the political boundaries but are not interchangeable with them. ..."

                    One could say that olive oil is not traditional to all of Italy, and indeed parts of northern Italy have always used more butter than olive oil, but even the oil-producing areas used to use more pork fat than costly, labor-intensive extra virgin olive oil.

                    Olive oil in a dish, especially with aceto balsamico, is not Italian American. It is American, probably introduced by newer Italian restaurants for the reasons I suggested above. Traditional Italian American cooking, traditional cooking of most of Italy, for that matter, knows nothing of aceto balsamico, which was a local niche item until only about thirty years ago. Also, the dipping dish is wasteful, and the traditional cuisines of Italy were frugal. Today people watch calories. The dipping dish makes no sense, then or now.

                    1. re: mbfant
                      a
                      acssss Jun 1, 2013 10:45 AM

                      I never said there were no unifying themes. With the media today, people in China can make pane pugliese, but it is still from Puglia and pasta alla bolognese - although made almost everywhere in the world is still from Bologna, pasta all'arrabbiata is still Roman and although sold throughout the world, parmigiano reggiano is still from Parma.
                      People there don't like saying that it is Italian, they like saying it is from Parma and they have great pride in their city/region.
                      Freedom of speech/writing will enable you to write whatever you want, but just because you are quoting from your own book, does not make it a fact.
                      If you poll people throughout Italy, there will be many opinions and ideas about common culture and yes, the media and cookbooks have enabled people throughout the country to make foods from various parts of the country, but there will be many many people (especially the older generation) who will not enjoy you taking away their place of origin and pride of many foods from their region.

                      1. re: acssss
                        b
                        barberinibee Jun 1, 2013 12:53 PM

                        acssss,

                        I agree with you.

                        It is a necessity in food writing to make sweeping generalisations but also profitable in food writing, maybe even necessary to get paid, to knock down the suppsed straw men that are the inevitable result of making sweeping generalisations. Anything anybody says about oiive oil is bound to be a broad generalisation, since it is beyond the reach of detailed observation. That broad generalisation is then wide open to be derided as "fashionable" or a "myth" and nitpicked on by people who want to point out there is more complexity than that -- but then those people end up making broad generlisations of their own! -- And the cycle of competitive foodie chatter continues. Feeds on itself!

                        Regarding the bread and oil issue when it comes to Liguria, every-day Ligurian bread already has a lot of oil right in it. Tony or pretentious restaurants serve hard curls of butter with non-oily bread.

                        In Liguria, if people seriously want to conduct tastings of olive oil, they drizzle it on a slice of plain boiled potato. But most people don't do oil "tastings." They just use the oil they produce from olives they grow on their own property or buy in supermarkets the best quality Ligurian olive oil they can afford.

                    2. re: acssss
                      b
                      bob96 May 31, 2013 02:13 PM

                      @acssss: I'm guessing you meant a single Italian food culture, and I mostly agree. There is, however, a broad Italian civic and consumer culture, increasingly standardized via the media. I also think you might be drawing fragile comparisons to the US, where mass, centralized everything holds sway, despite the glorious persistence of local and regional foodways--which are stubbornly fought for. And regional and even local tastes migrate here, perhaps unlike in Italy: you might not find great pastrami in Tulsa, but you will find very good pastrami in Houston; and you can find good pasticceria in North Carolina and good New England lobster rolls and great barbeque in New York City these days, along with biscuits and gravy. And everywhere still, oil in a plate.

                      1. re: bob96
                        b
                        barberinibee Jun 1, 2013 01:27 PM

                        bob96,

                        I think you have misread acssss. And I heartily disagree with the notion that there is a standardized Italian food culture. 90 percent of what I enjoy eating in the rest of Italy is unavailable to me in Genoa -- not any credible version of it.

                        Maybe if you live in Rome in Milan or a tourist center you can get that pan-Italian menu. Not here, and not in the supermarkets. Rome and Milan, in my estimation, has views of what's going on in the rest of Italy that is decidedly parochial in its own way.

                        1. re: barberinibee
                          b
                          bob96 Jun 1, 2013 10:10 PM

                          barberinbee,

                          I was actually agreeing with acssss about the delightful localization of Italian food cultures, but wondering if he/she might have overstated the degree to which other aspects of Italian society--politics, pop culture, economics, social organization, etc--are as fractured, or still as retrograde remnants of campanilismo as might be implied. As for that pan-Italian menu: you're right, but I have to say that in my ventures from Campania south to my family in Calabria, it wasn't only 'ndjua all the way down. At home, my cousins regularly made risotti, a very good Neapolitan paccheri alla genovese, and other decidedly non-local dishes, with pride and with interest in expanding their repertoire. Not to say that the local wasn't usually the preferred, especially when gathered by hand, all of which I respect and enjoy immensely. They might not have been eating farinata or drinking a Pigato, but they were always eager to try something new. Certainly, the Italian food media that I've followed in print and on videos range widely to cover food and drink from all regions and locales--that had to have an effect. But I always know what I want when I get to Reggio Calabria, and I hope it's always there.

                          1. re: bob96
                            mbfant Jun 1, 2013 10:53 PM

                            No sentient being could deny the variety of local Italian ingredients and dishes and their enduring local associations. In Rome we go to Ligurian or Sardinian restaurants as exotic or at least change-of-pace. But even the mosaic with the tiniest tesserae makes a unified picture when you step back and look at the whole. And when you step back and look at the whole picture of gastronomic Italy, you see a few things that all Italians would consider Italian. One of these is the use of olive oil, another is pasta (remember what Garibaldi prophesied), another is the basic meal structure with the concept of primo piatto and secondo piatto, another is the ubiquity of parmigiano-reggiano and similar cheeses, another is anchovies, or legumes (with all their local variety). Another is the particular fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs. Throughout Italy there is an insistence on quality and seasonality of ingredients. In Rome the best ricotta is made of sheep's milk, in Piedmont of cow's, and they are considered very different, but really, they are both ricotta, both good, and, seriously, interchangeable except to the most discriminating palates. And many people in both areas probably don't care about anything but price and buy a national brand at the supermarket. The unifying idea is ricotta. Not all these themes (or whatever we want to call them) are centuries old, but they exist now, and so, for 150 years, does Italy.

                    3. e
                      emu48 May 30, 2013 10:17 PM

                      Somebody tell me if restaurants in China are starting to serve Crab Rangoon because so many foreign customers expect it.

                      1. minchilli May 30, 2013 08:55 AM

                        This is definitely not an Italian restaurant custom. Bread and oil - as Maureen and Jennifer state - is very much part of the culture, but not as something that you eat in a restaurant before a meal.

                        In fact, lately, I've been approached by several Roman restaurant owners asking me how they should handle this situation. They say American customers not only expect a big basket of bread before a meal, but that they go through quite a bit of oil and often balsamic vinegar. Not only does this add a cost to the over all meal, but the customers are not only completely full by the time the meal does arrive, they have also often ruined their taste buds by dipping bread in balsamic vinegar.

                        While Italians might have a bruschetta (toasted bread with olive oil drizzled on top) as an antipasto, no Italian would think of filling up on bread before a meal. Bread is something that is consumed along side meat or vegetable dishes (and never pasta)

                        www.elizabethminchilliinrome.com

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: minchilli
                          j
                          jnwall May 30, 2013 09:47 AM

                          So, ironically, restaurants in the USA that want more than anything else to be regarded as authentically Italian are all doing this bread-and-oil thing, which is so not-Italian.

                          The thing for restaurant owners in Rome to say to American tourists is that they are really in Italy now, and this is how they really do things in Italy.

                          So go home and tell that to the wannabe authentically Italian restaurant owners in the USA.

                          1. re: jnwall
                            b
                            barberinibee Jun 1, 2013 01:37 PM

                            jnwall,

                            Why do you go to these touristy restaurants in the USA and Italy if they so annoy you? That would seem to me to be the more appropriate response then writing scripts for other people to mindlessly deliver.

                            My impression of Italian restauranteurs is that they are gracious hosts who like to make their customers happy. If one wants scoldy food lectures, one can go to France (or read ex'pat blogs or books I guess).

                        2. mbfant May 29, 2013 11:10 PM

                          It is not a normal Italian practice, though the combination of bread and oil is sacred. Oil is sometimes served with bread, usually in a small bottle (there are European regulations, and fights about the regulations, on this), but the difference is in the spirit: the bread is a vehicle for tasting the oil; the oil is not seen as a means of lubricating the bread, which is usually eaten plain. I have noticed an increase in this presentation of oil at the beginning of a meal, but have attributed it to a response to the expectations of diners from abroad (much like the offer of cappuccino after the meal -- only foreigners would accept, but restaurants like to keep their guests happy). And when bread and oil are combined -- as I said, largely for the purpose of tasting the oil -- nothing is added to the oil, since that would defeat the purpose, and the oil is normally poured over the bread, not into a bowl, which would be wasteful. High-end restaurants sometimes provide a little dish, but, again, I think that is a response to foreigners.

                          My theory of how this all began in the US is that sometime I think in the 1980s there was a shift in US awareness of Italian food, with an increase in restaurants that took their cues directly from Italy, not from the Italian-American tradition. That meant eliminating butter at the table, but the American diners (according to my theory; I wasn't there) would have objected to unlubricated bread. Oil would thus have been substituted for the desired butter.

                          High-end restaurants in Italy often do serve butter with their fancy breads, but there I think they are adopting a classic international practice, and it shouldn't be taken as indicative of the way normal people do things. Normal people as a rule eat butter mostly only at breakfast and pour oil over their bruschetta, but don't dip.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: mbfant
                            jen kalb May 30, 2013 06:50 AM

                            I agree with maureen's theory - I saw this practice first, not in Italy but in a high end tuscan styled restaurant in NY around 1990. We had met the chef in another context and he was very serious about presenting genuine regional flavors and dishes, which was a fairly new although not novel idea back then. A dish of tuscan oil - rather than butter was part of this style, likely for the reasons Maureen stated.

                            1. re: jen kalb
                              b
                              bob96 May 30, 2013 10:05 PM

                              Maureen and Jen have answered the question about origins. I think it was also a style nod to the "Mediterranean diet" fad that presented olive oil as not just another lipid, but some health-giving liquid that could be indulged with really little consequence, especially in comparison with butter. Then "Mediterranean" morphed into "Tuscan", and the game was set. Even if the rest of the menu never changed (well, perhaps a "Tuscan grilled chicken breast" over penne might have been added), and even if the oil proferred was usually some tasteless refined plonk, every Italian American restaurant now could at least look more "stylish," if only for a few minutes. I kind of miss the unaffectedness of the old fashioned butter plate. I also miss the complimentary glasses of cheap vermouth these places would offer as welcome, but that's my age showing.

                          2. j
                            jnwall May 29, 2013 06:29 PM

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

                            http://tuscantraveler.com/2012/floren...

                            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 . . . . .

                            1. pikawicca May 29, 2013 10:51 AM

                              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. LifeItalianStyle May 29, 2013 10:47 AM

                                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."

                                www.lifeitalianstyle.com

                                1. SWISSAIRE May 29, 2013 10:46 AM

                                  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. jen kalb May 29, 2013 10:34 AM

                                    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!

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