La Scarpetta: when you want to lick the plate clean

You know when you have that irresistible saucy goodness on your plate at the end of a meal that makes you seriously consider licking your plate like a starving maniac in public? Well the Italians have come up with a great solution for that. It’s called la scarpetta.

Fare la scarpetta, roughly translated as “to do the little shoe,” is the very charming act of using a small piece of bread to mop up the wonderful sauce on your plate that you cannot possibly leave behind. It’s only appropriate that the preferred bread for this in our household, like many, is a loaf of ciabatta, a deliciously crunchy-on-the-outside-airy-on-the-inside Italian bread whose name happens to mean “slipper.”

My husband is so enamoured of doing la scarpetta that he’ll often make a jus even if the dish doesn’t have one, just so he can have the pleasure of slowly devouring a loaf of ciabatta piece by piece, sopped up in the remnants of the meal until his plate is sparklingly clean.

While the practice is enormously popular all over Italy, the origins of this sometimes inappropriate, absolutely satisfying table manner, are mostly today unknown. Plenty of theories abound, though, and the one that I like the best is proposed by Fabrizio Vanni in his book on Medieval eating habits. He suggests that it was only when tomatoes were introduced to Italian cuisine from the late 16th century onward that preparations such as soups and sauces were thinned down to how we know them now. Before this most dishes were chunky, thick and dry meals (think porrige or polenta type consistency) – not at all suitable for mopping up saucy leftovers with bread. La scarpetta, Vanni concludes, was not just a secondary part of the meal, an afterthought, but actually an essential part, the part that fills up hungry stomachs.

Why the “little shoe”? The explanation that seems the most poetic to me comes from the fact that la scarpetta is at the heart of cucina povera, poor cuisine, when people were so hungry that they could have even eaten the soles of their shoes… lapping up the last of that veil of sauce was to not waste a thing.

This is the recipe for my husband’s favourite dish in the world for doing la scarpetta, which will hopefully inspire you to try it or make you own saucy dishes. His grandmother, Lina, used to prepare this for him when he was a little boy. It takes literally a few minutes to make and is so simple so make sure to use the best quality ingredients you can find, particularly real Parmesan cheese (if possible, freshly ground is best).

Braciolina al burro for two

2 beef or veal scaloppine (very thin slices of steak)

Finely ground Parmesan cheese (the best quality you can get!)

Knob of butter

½ a glass of dry white wine

Thoroughly coat the scaloppine in the Parmesan cheese, patting down to make sure they are well coated. In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and gently fry the veal slices for a minute or so. Turn the veal slices over, add the wine to the pan and let simmer and reduce slightly for two minutes before taking off the heat and placing onto serving plates. Serve with the juices from the pan and a side salad of rocket leaves dressed in extra virgin olive oil and vinegar. Season with freshly ground black pepper and lap up the juices on your plate with some fresh, crusty bread like ciabatta.

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Comments

16 Responses to “La Scarpetta: when you want to lick the plate clean”
  1. Michelle says:

    I always get a kick out of telling folks back home how Italians actually have a word this. I also find it’s one of the best ways to consume saltless Tuscan bread.

  2. Bruko says:

    well, that’s basically what I’m doing with the (amazingly yummy) oil you brought us: I use a little bit too much on the tomato salad so that I can do the scarpetta with it!

  3. jann says:

    I love this! And those juices make me salivate. Yum, yum. When I once did the scarpetta in a restaurant in Sicily, my friend told me it was considered low class! (Maybe it’s something done more in homes?) It doesn’t seem to be done as commonly here as in France, for instance.

    • Emiko says:

      Jann, that’s really interesting! My husband (who is Tuscan) insists on doing it everywhere he goes, haha, it is quite common in Tuscany but I do know that in other Italian regions it’s considered a bad habit!

  4. Andrea says:

    Hi from Italy ^^
    Well yes, la scarpetta is one of those things you do when you’re at home or with friends. Some do it also in all those restaurants that have a rustic, “familiar mood”, like trattorie.
    At my girlfriend’s bday we went to a “trendy” restaurant with our friends and we took ravioli with taleggio and walnuts sauce. Well, the sauce was so good that we called the owner (a long-time friend of us ;) ) and asked him:
    “What if.. we ask you to bring some bread to make la scarpetta? Would you get angry?”
    and him “Are you joking? That would be the greatest compliment possible”
    That day we took pics of 12 boys&girls dipping bread pieces in the big dishes in the “trendiest” restaurant of the city ;)

  5. John-David Filing says:

    I was looking for the origin of scarpetta, and was happy to find this site. Unfortunately for you, someone plagiarized your article and it is higher ranked on Google. No idea what you can do about it, but the offender’s article is here: http://underthetuscangun.com/talk/foodography/la-scarpetta-licking-the-plate-clean/

    • John-David Filing says:

      Oh crap, never mind, since you can’t plagiarize yourself. I am so embarrassed.

      • Emiko says:

        Ha ha, don’t worry! I was slightly worried at first to read your first comment, but then thankfully relieved to see it was Under the Tuscan Gun! I contribute articles to their blog regularly and this is one that I used for my own blog as well. Glad to know that you were happy to find this! Thanks!

  6. Regula says:

    Love, love, love this post Emiko… Especially after meeting Marco, I can see him getting all excited about the leftover sauce! You can see he absolutely adores you and food!
    X

  7. David Dowse says:

    I asked for a bit of bread in an Italian restaurant yesterday because I wanted to mop up the delicious juice. The waiter told me they call this ‘scarpetta’. Today I see ‘scarpetta’ means ‘little boot’, and my theory is that when you dip the bread into the juice the lower part of the bread is coloured with the juice and the bit you are holding in your fingertips is still white – so it looks like a little boot with a lighter coloured ankle going into it. Mmmm, the juice was lovely though! (I was in Apulia, Smithfield, London UK.)

  8. Daniele says:

    Hi all, I’m from Sardinia, me and my partner own a restaurant in Western Australia (Margaret river)…and guess what’s the name of our restaurant? “La Scarpetta Trattoria”.
    Needless to say it’s an Italian restaurant and we encourage our customers to “do” la Scarpetta and offer complementary fresh bread (both ciabatta and sourdough). We actually take the time to explain this practice so common everywhere in Italy, and yes, apparently it’s not the best thing to do in high end/posh restaurants but no one really cares anymore since it’s part of our culture. I loved your article and hope you don’t mind if I shared it on our Facebook page!
    Btw, your blog is awesome!
    Ciao

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