There are lots of different types of Italian bread, from focaccia to ciabatta. There are also regional breads with a rich history, like the pane di padula which was first made in Salerno, Campania. This is one of the oldest known Italian breads and dates back to after the fall of the Roman Empire.
It is made with a mixture of semolina and wheat flour, and the unbaked loaf is marked with squares to represent the Pompeii mosaics.
Marking loafs of bread is a tradition which came about when villages would bake their loaves in a communal oven. Each family would have their own symbol or ‘marchio’ so they knew whose bread was whose.
Bread has strong links to faith in Italian culture, and loaves were often marked with a cross to show that the bread had been blessed. This marking also helps the bread to expand as it cooks.
In Christianity, bread is seen as the symbol of life and during holy communion it signifies the body of Christ. The most common religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism.
Bread is an important part of Italian life and is enjoyed in lots of different ways. Italians are known for eating a lot of bread and serving it on the side of many different meals. But why is bread such a common accompaniment to so many meals in Italian cuisine?
When should bread be served with the meal, and why? And do Italians eat bread with every meal? Keep reading to find out more.
Should Bread Be Eaten As An Appetizer?
If you are at an Italian restaurant and the server brings a basket of bread for the table, this is not an appetizer. This bread is meant to be eaten alongside your meal. A lot of people like to dip bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar as an appetizer, but this is not traditionally Italian.
The vinegar will impact your tastebuds and affect how you interpret the flavours for the rest of the meal. Bread dipped in olive oil is usually eaten to taste olive oil rather than to enjoy the bread.
Some Italian restaurants serve breadsticks or ‘grissini’ alongside the meal instead of fresh bread. You might be tempted to eat these before your main meal arrives, but they are supposed to be enjoyed with the rest of the food rather than on their own.
You can get Italian appetizers, or antipasto, that involve bread, like bruschetta. The bread is toasted and topped with drizzled olive oil, and maybe some crushed tomatoes, before it reaches the table. This bread should be eaten before your main meal. You can also get topped focaccia bread as an antipasto, or as a snack that can be eaten on the go.
Should You Serve Bread With Pasta?
In many households, bread is served alongside pasta dishes like lasagne or bolognese. This is not done in traditional Italian cooking- bread is not served with pasta dishes as there is already enough of a starch element to the meal.
The exception to this is if the pasta has a lot of sauce, then bread can be used to mop up the sauce at the end of the meal. This is sometimes called ‘fare la scarpetta’. However, this is not always appropriate in fancy restaurants and is usually done at more casual Italian meals.
This does not mean that Italians won’t eat more than one type of starch in one meal- but they tend to spread it out over multiple courses. You can have arancini – a deep fried ball of risotto – followed by pizza or pasta.
Why Is Bread Served With Italian Meals?
If you are having an antipasto that doesn’t include a starch element already, like soup, salad, fish, olives, cheese or fish, then this should be enjoyed with bread. It helps to soak up the flavours and juices and adds a lovely texture to the mouthful.
If your main meal is meat and/or vegetables, or something that doesn’t include pasta, then bread can be used to mop up any sauce. You can also use the bread to help scoop food onto your fork.
Some kinds of Italian breads contain little to no salt, as they are designed to be enjoyed alongside other foods. If the bread was too flavoursome then it would be overpowering when eaten with the main dish, and could disrupt the balance of flavours.
Do Italians Eat Bread For Breakfast?
There are some Italian breakfast dishes that involve bread, but it is not the most popular breakfast item. Some older generations of Italians eat bread soaked in milk. A lot of Italians don’t eat a big breakfast– they have a coffee and eat a larger lunch.
Fette biscottate is a type of nutritious Italian biscuit that is often eaten at breakfast time. Cereals like corn flakes or muesli are often eaten with yoghurt or milk for breakfast in Italy.
What Do Italians Do With Leftover Bread?
With bread being served alongside lots of meals, you might expect there to be a lot of bread going to waste. That isn’t the case- any uneaten bread is never thrown away in an Italian kitchen.
Even if the bread has gone a bit stale, it can still be used in many Italian recipes that are designed to make use of leftover bread.
Pappa al pomodoro is a tomato and bread soup which is perfect for using up bread. Alternatively, you can make Panzanella with the leftover bread. Panzanella is a Tuscan salad type meal made out of soaked stale bread, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, and fresh basil.
The salad is dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Ribollita is a Tuscan vegetable soup made with winter vegetables and thickened with stale bread.
Crostini is also a great way to use up stale bread- crunchy slices of bread are topped with extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, or meat. You could also make candereli – dumplings made with stale bread, milk, eggs, cheese and seasonings.
Breadcrumbs are used in quite a few Italian recipes, and you can make your own breadcrumbs using stale bread. Stale bread works better than fresh bread for breadcrumbs as it makes them dryer and crisper.
It also prevents them from soaking up too much oil when fried, which prevents the food from being too greasy or having an oily flavour.
Do Italians Eat Bread With Every Meal?
No, Italians do not necessarily eat bread with every meal. A lot of Italian dishes are well balanced with starch, meat or protein and vegetables. Bread is often used as the starch element, as it has been an important part of Italian culture and cuisine for centuries.
Whilst bread is not served with every meal, it is eaten alongside a lot of different meals and is an excellent accompaniment to the flavours and textures of Italian cooking.
Now that you know more about how Italians eat bread and why, you can choose whether to take on their traditions in your household. Maybe you will switch out the garlic bread for salad when you serve lasagne, or serve some ciabatta with your next meat-based meal.