What do you do – you’ve just finished the last forkful of your favorite spaghetti alle cozze (spaghetti with mussels) and now you’re dying to relish that last little bit of sauce still left on your plate? You’ve exhausted all efforts to scoop it up with your cutlery, and you’ve completely ruled out the possibility of sneaking the plate up to your mouth for a quick swipe, unnoticed. So now what? You assure yourself, it’s not just gluttony – it’s truly a pity to waste such a ben di Dio (loose translation: gift of God). You look at that plate – still warm and irresistible – and you know that your relationship with it is not over! Some well-meaning waiter might look at that plate and think the time has come for you to move on, but he doesn’t see it the way you do. If you’re Italian – anywhere from four to eighty-four years old – the answer is obvious: bread! Bread is the solution and there is a method – there’s even a word for it: scarpetta.
Scarpetta means “little shoe” in Italian. This is a colloquial expression, and probably most Italian families’ have their own stories about the practice – but, first, let’s clarify what it is. Fare la scarpetta means when you find yourself in the situation described above, you simply take a piece of bread from the basket – which part of the bread you choose is important and strategic – and propel it into the sauce. At this very moment, that piece of bread transforms into a tiny shoe – and the sauce is the soft ground, if you will, in which your little shoe is sinking. Italy could be divided into two groups: those who do the scarpetta, and those (few) who don’t. Some people do so only furtively – just enough to show solidarity; more brazen food lovers just dig in with no regrets. A good scarpettaro – that is, the doer of the deed – will leave the plate with nearly no trace of sauce – which is of great help, as we all know, for the dishwasher.
I have three brothers and two sisters and when we were little, growing up in Venice in the 50’s, we had to clean our plates this way – we simply had to, no discussions – and we enjoyed doing so. Absurd as it may sound, our mother taught us to first gently pass a piece of bread around our tomato-smeared lips and chin, and then do a little scarpettina. The reason was simple: we used real and precious cloth napkins and we didn’t have a washing machine yet – and we kids made a real mess of those napkins. Another important reason di fare la scarpetta (literally “to do the scarpetta”) was that in our family, as in millions of other Italian families in those days, the idea of wasting any food was considered a mortal sin; this was true not only in Italy, but in many post-war European countries. Doing scarpetta was not only a way to save the precious sauce left on our plates, but also a way to use up all those little pieces of bread scattered about the table. There was one caveat to the scarpetta rule in our family: we were taught that this habit was a definite no-no in polite society and in most restaurants. If we found ourselves in such circumstances, my father’s edict was that maybe, but just maybe, it was permissible to do scarpetta once or twice if we used our fork instead of our fingers.
Northern Italians normally do not eat bread with pasta. A piece of bread is used just as a tool for gently assisting food onto a fork. Southern Italians are more honest. They love eating pasta with bread and they don’t hide it. It’s not rare, even today, to see hard workers – the hungry ones – dipping a whole panino in a juicy plate of pasta – with as clear a conscience as if they were plunging a biscotto in a caffelatte. So, scarpetta? – si!