You have just finished your tasty pasta cooked al dente, and there it lies on your plate: a whole layer of delicious sauce. How could you leave it there, wasted, to be thrown away? Impossible! is the answer many Italians would give to such a question: this is why we love the scarpetta and cannot quite avoid doing it, even when, as Galateo says, we shouldn’t.
This word can hardly be translated in other languages except if using a whole definition of the action itself: in Italy, the idiomatic expression fare la scarpetta is understood everywhere, but the origins of it are still unknown. Some would say that the word scarpetta recalls a type of pasta used in the 19th century in Tuscany, others say that it is linked to the idea of a little shoe, literally, a scarpetta, taking everything under its sole and cleaning the plate; others still say that it is linked to the Southern Italian word “scarsetta,” meaning poverty.
In spite of its relatively old origins, the word only appeared in the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana in 1987.
This is something that not every foreigner can understand. In itself, the act is simple: it’s just dipping some bread in the leftovers of whatever one has just finished eating. For Italians, however, there is a whole world behind this habit, and diatribes on whether it is polite or not to do it have been going on since times immemorable: should we or should we not do the scarpetta at the end of a good meal?
After centuries of discussions and thousands of people debating should it be avoided when dining formally, or embraced fully as a righteous manner to conclude a fantastic meal, it has been eventually decided that doing it is not so much of a problem anymore.
Even the Galateo, the quintessential set of bon-ton rules that, for a certain time, was considered the bitterest enemy of this ritual, has finally given its verdict: in the end, doing it it’s ok!
True, the Galateo also states that the scarpetta should only find place on more informal tables and one should always use a fork to hold the bread, yet, it’s been a small victory for scarpetta lovers all over the country.
To be honest, nobody really cares about using a fork: most of us rely on our own hands, although yes, we do tend to do it only at home, or at least, only when dining with friends.
No matter if people are from the north, center or south, doing the scarpetta is ubiquitous and equally loved by diners and chefs alike: Italian cooks say there is no greater satisfaction than receiving a clean plate back in the kitchen, a clear sign that people really enjoyed their food.
Doing the scarpetta is also, to many, a truly evoking gesture, reminiscent of childhood and times gone by: to a great deal of us Italians, the first scarpetta was handed over by a nonna, who would dip a piece of bread in the sauce still on the stove to let us try it before everybody else. The scarpetta was, then, a little treat, and yet another sign of the undying love and predilection of our grandparents towards us. The scarpetta is not only a delightful thing to do after eating a good dish of pasta, but also a mixture of memories and feelings for most. Well known Italian chefs like Gualtiero Marchesi and Gianfranco Vissani are great supporters and another, Massimo Bottura, has even created a dish to be entirely consumed without cutlery and only with bread: the dish is served in his Modena’s restaurant, La Francescana.
Certainly, there are people around thinking that a scarpetta is an impolite thing to do, yet, it is a temptation that most Italians and many tourists cannot resist: our advice is to give in by choosing the best bread, soft and full of mollica (the softest, inner part of the bread itself), dip it with joy in whichever delicacy is left on your plate and enjoy a truly rewarding and delicious scarpetta! In the end, among the many eating rules to follow in Italy, doing the scarpetta remains something we glady go against good manners for!