Friday, June 8, 2012

He had me at bruschetta

When I spent the summer in Orvieto, trying to decide if I should or could make Italy my permanent home, I naturally had the chance to eat lots of great food. What struck me more than anything was the pureness and simplicity of real Umbrian cooking—three, four or five ingredients, all of which you can taste and identify, served without muss or fuss, in ample portions and, at the right trattoria, for a reasonable price. Most everything on your plate is grown or raised within 20 kilometers of where you’re eating.

People flock to Mezza Luna in Orvieto for the carabonara, that wonderfully hearty pasta made of thick noodles, olive oil, pancetta, cheese and raw egg. You can find carabonara in many restaurants in Italy, but in and around Orvieto, everyone agrees that Mezza Luna does it best. It’s a not to be missed experience for anyone spending a few days in Orvieto. If you can get a table, that is.

Fortunately an intrepid member of our party made a reservation several days in advance, and we secured our lunch table for four. I left the ordering to Mario—so long as there were no organ meats or rabbits involved, I was game for pretty much anything. We all had carabonara coming as our primo piatto. But something stole my heart long before the pasta hit the boiling water. Something so simple, yet so divine, as so intrinsically a part of Umbrian cuisine and culture.

It was the bruschetta simplice: toasted bread, olive oil, garlic and salt. I was convinced there was some alchemist’s magic in that plate.

Little did I know that, weeks later, a simple piece of toast would work its magic on me.

The night before our big date.
Yes, yes I did let that man make me a piece of bruschetta.
The run-up to my first date with Paolo was a raucous dinner on some madman’s terrace. Electric guitars were played. Bottles were thrown and smashed, mostly by the host. I remember The Doors and Jimi Hendrix blaring from crackling speakers.

In the midst of this melee, I managed to zero in on Paolo and stick close by. As we started to eat, I reached for a piece of bread and saw the whole garlic cloves nearby, but wasn’t sure what to do next.

“Piace bruschetta?” Do you like bruschetta? Paolo asked me.  

“Si!” I answered, I’m sure a little too eagerly.

Still, there I sat with a piece of unadorned bread in my hand.

“Faccio io?” I’ll do it? he asked.

I nodded again, like one of those bobble head puppies on the dashboard of a taxicab.

And he worked that same magic that I’d tasted at MezzaLuna…he scrubbed both sides of the toasted bread with the garlic, drowned it in oil, sprinkled it with salt (and a dose of bedroom eyes) and handed it to me. God damn! How could that taste so good?!

It was probably a good thing that Paolo and I saved our kissing for the next night, to give us both time to recover from garlic breath. (Like that would have stopped me? Yeah, right.)

Paolo harvesting olives
Now, every November when we harvest our olives, our first meal with the new oil is always bruschetta simplice. I doubt Paolo even remembers me sitting doe-eyed while he made me a silly piece of bread. But every time I bite into a piece of bruschetta, I remember that evening. And as much as I love my bruschetta simplice, it’s never tasted as good as that first slice Paolo made for me.

Even if you don’t have a tall handsome Italian to prepare your bruschetta, it’s a pretty foolproof dish.

The simplest form of this classic Italian antipasto is a heaven-made marriage of just a few flavors, and one of the most perfect things I’ve ever tasted. Americanized versions of bruschetta add cheese, tomato sauce (horrors!) and other toppings. But trust me; the beauty of Italian food is in its simplicity and few ingredients. And this classic bruschetta is the perfect example.

For bruschetta simplice, you will need:
- Rustic white bread
- Whole garlic cloves, peeled
- Good quality extra virgin olive oil
Picking olives is hard work!
Sara and Nonno Gino take a break.
- Salt

- Start with thick (1/2 inch) slices of artisanal white bread – not the kind you buy in the bread aisle at the grocery, but a rustic, handmade loaf. White bread really is the best; anything too flavorful will mask the flavors of the oil.
- If you can, grill the bread over an open flame. In November, we use our fireplace to toast bread for bruschetta. If you don’t have a fireplace or grill, use the broiler function in the oven, but keep an eye on your slices!
- Once the bread is grilled, take a garlic clove and “scrub” it into both sides of the toasted bread. You’ll see that the clove really does wear down, like it’s being grated into the bread.
- Set the toasted bread on a plate and pour the olive oil over it. Don’t drizzle the bread with oil – drown it! It should be completely saturated.
Our olives, heading into the mill.
- Sprinkle some salt across the top, and dig into this fabulous explosion of flavors.

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