La Scarpetta: Licking 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. Imagine you’ve just had a bowl of steaming mussels cooked in a juicy white wine sauce, a classic spaghetti with rich tomato sauce or your favourite roast dripping with a beautiful gravy or jus – your plate will just be screaming out to be wiped clean with a scarpetta, so you can prolong the pleasure of savouring every single last drop of that tasty sauce left behind.

It’s only appropriate that we continue the shoe metaphor with the fact that the preferred bread for la scarpetta is a loaf of ciabatta, a deliciously crunchy-on-the-outside-airy-on-the-inside Italian bread whose name happens to mean “slipper.”

While the practice is enormously popular all over Italy, the origins of this sometimes inappropriate but absolutely satisfying table manner are mostly today unknown. Plenty of theories abound but one that makes the most sense to me 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 Americas in 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 a polenta-type consistency – not at all suitable for mopping up saucy leftovers with bread. La scarpetta, Vanni adds, was not just a secondary part of the meal or an afterthought, but actually an essential part, the part that fills up hungry stomachs.

Even today, I’m convinced that it is not only an essential part of a homely Italian meal, but it is a pleasure to draw out the meal by slowly devouring a loaf of ciabatta piece by piece, sopping up in the remnants of the meal, perhaps with an added drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, until the plates are sparklingly clean and look like they can be put straight back in the cupboard.

Why the “little shoe”? Italians are visual when it comes to language – some say the little piece of bread, being dipped and dragged through the sauce on the plate with fingers takes on the concave form of a 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.