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.