Dipping bread into seasoned olive oil to nibble on before a meal isn’t typically done in Italy. Food historians credit this pre-dinner ritual to various Italian American restaurants in San Francisco circa 1990. When with great flourish a waiter arrived at your table with a sliced baguette of warm bread and a bowl of deep green extra virgin olive oil seasoned with Italian herbs and spices anointed with a drizzle of balsamico.
Although dipping bread in olive oil may have been a habit of the ancient Romans, today in Italy there is absolutely no practice of setting bowls of olive oil on the table with baskets of bread for dipping before the antipasto has arrived. Italians believe that eating bread before a meal ruins the appetite. Bread is meant to be eaten with other food or in some cases an ingredient rather than a apericena or opening course to dinner. Bread is also a vehicle used in the "scarpetta", dipping some bread in the leftovers of whatever one has just finished eating especially pasta, to wipe the sauce off the plate and enjoy every last bit of it.
There are times when Italians do eat bread with extra virgin olive oil. In December and January, when the olives are harvested, the just pressed oil, olio nuovo, is formally tasted and enjoyed as la fettunta (an oily slice) from fetta (slice) and unta (oily). A slice of bread is toasted (usually over an open flame), rubbed while still warm with a halved clove of fresh garlic and drenched with a generous pour of newly harvested oil with a sprinkle of sea salt. It is a splurge to taste and appreciate the unique flavor of the newly harvest oil.
To follow the American tradition of dipping bread into seasoned olive oil choose the best quality olive oil you can afford and make your dipping oil with a well-balanced mix of Italian herbs and spices like this one adapted from a favorite restaurant recipe. If you’re going to break an Italian food rule make it worth it.
OLive Oil Dipping Mix
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp fresh rosemary
1 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp fresh chopped Italian parsley
1 tbsp fresh minced garlic
extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp crushed red pepper flakes to taste
1 tbsp freshly ground coarse black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt to taste
Mix the oregano, rosemary, basil, parsley and garlic in a small food processor until finely minced. Add a drop or two of extra virgin olive oil if needed to make a coarse paste. Remove mixture to a small bowl and stir in red pepper, black pepper and sea salt. Store in a jar or air tight container and refrigerate. Should be used in 1-2 weeks. When serving pour olive oil in a dipping dish and add a teaspoon of seasoning mix to taste. You can double, triple or quadruple the seasoning mixture if needed.
*if you have a prepared Italian seasoning mix like this one from Gustus Vitae Taste of Tuscany Seasoning you can add fresh garlic, rosemary and parsley and proceed as above.