On that first trip to Italy years ago, I talked to everybody, if only to practice my Italian. Shy in English, I was more gregarious in Italian. I had come with Venetian friends, six of us piled into a tiny Fiat, careening down the autostrada, stopping every half hour for an espresso, six hours to Sorano in southern Tuscany, where my friend Chicco had bought a tiny two-room stone house.
In the morning, whoever was first up made coffee in the Bialetti Moka Express, which is the way everybody makes it in Italy. Well, I hadn't yet weaned myself off an American-sized mug of coffee. I needed more to wake up.
So I went out in search of more coffee or a cafe. I wandered around the village, up and down the few steep cobbled lanes, passing old ladies knitting in front of their doorways, skittish cats and the occasional teen leaning, bored, against a scooter, the kind that makes the annoying lawnmower sound.
That's when I came across the old man washing down plastic harvest baskets. When we had arrived the afternoon before, the whole town smelled like fermenting grapes. I had to ask the old gentleman whether his grapes were Sangiovese or something else.
Come, he said, I'll give you a taste of the new wine, and he led me to his doorway around the corner. He whisked me in and quickly closed the door with a wink. "Busybodies! Gossips!" I wasn't too worried. He didn't look very dangerous.
Sit down, sit down, he said, shooing the cat off the chair. And poured ruby wine into a thick glass tumbler. It wasn't very good, but I murmured appreciation anyway. (Maybe it got better with age?)
Then he took a folding knife from his pocket and cut two inch-thick slices of bread from a big crusty loaf on the sideboard. He proceeded to grill them in the fireplace until the bread had stiffened and the edges were slightly burnt. He cut a garlic clove in two and rubbed each half over the rough toast until the garlic disappeared into the crumb. I watched as he poured green gold olive oil from a tin olive oil dispenser until the toast was swimming in the oil.
"Bruschetta!" I said, and took a bite that rocked my world. I had had it before, but never like this. There's something so elemental, so ancient about this simple snack. It doesn't sound like much -- bread, garlic, olive oil -- but it truly was food for the soul on that blustery fall morning.
The word "bruschetta" comes from " bruscare," Roman dialect for "to char" or "to scrub," depending on the context. In parts of Tuscany it is also called fett'unta -- "oiled slice," I later learned. Sometimes that means very oiled. When I visited an olive oil producer in Umbria that winter, he toasted the bread and then simply floated it on top of a vat of chartreuse-colored new oil, so bright it was almost iridescent, letting the bread soak up the olive oil like a sponge. I remember the oil dripping down my chin as I ate it.
After a second bruschetta (which, if you don't already know, is pronounced with a hard k, not "sh"), I was ready to leave. The old man motioned, "Wait!" He cracked the door just enough to stick out his head, theatrically looked both ways, then signaled that the coast was clear. I scooted out the door and headed nonchalantly down the lane toward Chicco's, where I commandeered the stovetop espresso pot and made myself another pot of coffee.
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The basics of bruschetta
Bruschetta doesn't really need a recipe, but it does require the best ingredients you can find. First of all, a crusty loaf of bread with some texture and holes to it. My favorite is the country loaf from the original La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. Day-old is perfect. After all, this -- and many other Tuscan dishes -- came about as a way to use up old bread.
Then you need some plump fresh garlic cloves and a bottle of either olio nuovo (new oil, a good one is available from Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma starting the first week of December) or a top extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany, Umbria or Spain (see sources below). I'm just finishing a bottle of estate-bottled Merula EVOO from Spain made from Arbequina olives. Just please don't pull out that bottle that's been languishing at the back of your cupboard for five years.
* Cut the bread at least an inch thick. (At the salumi bar at Mozza's Scuola di Pizza, their fett'unta is 2 inches thick and toasted over the wood-fired grill.)
* Toast the bread until it's slightly burnt at the edges. (If your toaster won't accept thick slices, do it in a toaster oven or the broiler; if you're cooking for a crowd, you can bake several slices on a cookie sheet in a 400-degree oven.)
* For each slice, rub half a clove of garlic over the toast until it disappears into the bread.
* Place the toasted bread on a plate, and pour olive oil over until it soaks into the bread and pools. Be generous. Don't stint. Add a pinch of salt if you like. If you're left with a pool of olive oil, not to worry. Sop it up with a piece of bread or save it for the next day's salad dressing.
Where to find olio nuovo
Rare Wine Co. olive oils, www.rarewineco.com. Shipment of new oils generally starts the first week of December. By spring, they'll have about a dozen 2012 olive oils from Tuscany.
Other good sources for high-quality Italian olive oils: Cube Marketplace, 615 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 939-1148, www.cubemarketplace.com; Guidi Marcello, 1649 10th St., Santa Monica, (310) 452-6277, www.guidimarcello.com.
Most serious wine shops also stock a handful of good oils from their Italian wine producers.