Food /
Food culture

La Scarpetta: Sopping Up the Sauce

“An art form and integral element of Italian heritage, impossible to translate into English.”

Fare la scarpetta is the act of tearing a chunk of bread off of a loaf, pinching it between your right thumb and index finger and dragging it around an almost empty plate – often of pasta – which still has dollops of sauce, in order to savour every last bit. Once the piece of bread is sufficiently coated with sauce, it is lifted and gobbled up. 

Sometimes, when I find myself in an intimate context with friends, away from the public eye, I consider licking my fingers as a way of completing la scarpetta. Like the famous Fonzies’ cheese chip ad declares: se non ti lecchi le dita, godi solo a metà! “If you don’t lick your fingers, you only get half of the pleasure”. 

La scarpetta literally translates to “the little shoe”, and a shoe is in fact where its name originates from. Like a shoe being dragged across the floor, la scarpetta mirrors the action, cleaning a dish immaculately. 

Doing la scarpetta properly means leaving an almost spotless dish, which when handed back to a waiter, nonna or a friend, automatically prompts the exclamation: quindi ti è piaciuto! “I see you enjoyed the dish!”. It is an automatic exclamation as in Italian culture, there is no finer compliment to one’s cuisine than a plate that has been fully cleaned. It implies that the diner relished every element of the dish, including the leftover sauce, and deemed it too precious to go to waste. It is one of the many nonverbal forms of communication we practice on a daily basis which expresses utter appreciation not only for a dish, but for a person who took the time to prepare it. 

I have been to countless dinners where we reach an often, albeit brief, uncomfortable competitive moment: who will get the privilege of doing la scarpetta of the serving bowl? A story which unfolds itself differently depending on the social context. At home, with friends and family, the serving bowl can be passed around so that everyone can do some scarpetta, equally. In more formal situations, such as in a restaurant, a serving dish might not even exist in the first place or, alternatively, one diner is selected as the designated scarpetta person, and it often happens to be the one who’s still hungry after a gigantic bowl of pasta. 

This inevitable moment brings me onto a touchy subject in Italian dining culture, especially for older generations: il galateo, the etiquette. A collection of rules and appropriate behaviours to adopt for everything that concerns social life, in which dining has always played a significant role. Some rules penned by the galateo are still in use today, such as waiters serving clients on their left, waiting for everyone to be served before beginning to eat and waiting for everyone to be done with the first course before starting the second one. Other standards of appropriate behaviour have been loosened over the decades, as people have transitioned to a more informal way of life, such as it now being appropriate to snack on bread before or after a meal and in between courses. 

It may come as no surprise, that according to the galateo, fare la scarpetta is absolutely forbidden, partly because it involves using one’s hands to touch food, as well as it being a gesture historically associated with poverty. Scraping at one’s dish for all the last fragments of food is tightly linked to food scarcity and hunger, two things which are inappropriate for society as they recall hard times of famine and war. 

I want to examine la scarpetta a little deeper in order to grasp its essence. There are two factors upon which the success of a scarpetta relies: sauce and bread. If the sauce isn’t good, doing la scarpetta isn’t even taken into consideration – no one wants to finish bad sauce. If the bread isn’t good, most people don’t feel like eating more of it although, if the sauce is exceptionally good, even bad bread can’t stop a good scarpetta. 

Sauce, or condiment like olive oil, is what makes la scarpetta. Il sugo – the Italian name for sauce – is a category of food embedded deep in Italian gastronomic culture and one of the pillars of the Mediterranean diet. Sauce goes with everything: pasta, roast meat, vegetables, appetizers, side dishes… Throughout most of Italy, il sugo is directly associated with tomato sauce, perhaps the most common ingredient, used on everything from pizza and pasta to meatballs and beans. In Tuscany, however, people associate il sugo with meat based ragù sauce – an equally as satisfying scarpetta

Good sauce isn’t just about the quality of the raw materials, any Italian will tell you it is so much more. It has to do with density: thick enough to stay combined but not so thick as to lose its creaminess. With consistency: each element within the sauce has to unite and not become one, messy and indistinguishable unity. With depth of flavour: basically every sugo ever made starts with a soffritto, a gentle frying of onions, garlic, olive oil, herbs and more – ingredients which are vital in giving sauce layers of flavour.

If a dish doesn’t have any sugo chances are it will have some olive oil or melted butter – depending on where in Italy you find yourself – which are two ingredients that were basically created to be enjoyed with bread and therefore great scarpetta opportunities. If you’re anything like me, you would never waste any precious olive oil or butter! Even the simplest condiment like brand new, bright green olive oil with its peppery flavour makes for a great scarpetta. Its beauty lies fully in its simplicity, pure and real. What I love about scarpetta is that it can be enjoyed by everyone. It can unite people and forges communities because no expensive ingredients or fancy tools are needed to perform the scarpetta. It is a simple action, full of gratification that breaks social, age and political barriers.