Why do we say “fare la scarpetta” and where does the expression come from? Origins and meaning

It is one of the most typical gestures of the Italians at the table: to clean up the condiments from the dish just finished with a piece of bread, in the iconic hand gesture. In an expression: to mop up the sauce. While in some ways it indicates that the dish was appreciated, in more formal contexts it is seen as a form of rudeness and is considered unrefined by the etiquette.

This is a curious saying from Recent originscontrary to what one might think. One of the first attestationsaccording to GDLI (Great Dictionary of the Italian Language), dates back to 1987: “Fulco Pratesi, 53, architect, travels around Rome by bicycle, takes a bath no more than once a week and doesn’t even use tablecloths at lunch to save water, he even preaches the civility of ‘scarping off the bread’ to limit the number of changes of dishes during the meal”.

A previous apparition, with the same meaning but different form, is however found already in 1952In the Handbook of modern words Of Angelic Meadowswhich provides a geographical indication, this time too Romeand the definition “do the touch-up, clean your plate with a piece of bread after eating from it.”

Taking a further step back, the expression already appears in the 1871 in the magazine The whipwhen the character of Gaspero “er gobbo” utters the phrase: “Let me mop up this little bit of sauce that’s left.”. All the evidence confirms that the expression has been in common, colloquial and familiar use, at least since mid 20th centuryin Rome or in any case in theCentral and Southern Italyalso confirmed by the presence of the expression in dictionaries of Abruzzese (1893) and Molise.

Nonetheless, There are few theories about its originThe luckiest ones are two: the one according to which the “scarpetta” would have referred to a pasta concave in shape which would have favored the collection of the remains of sauce on the plate, and the one for which “scarpetta” would have referred to a shoe light and flexible, not very elegant, to allude to an action of a “starving man”.

A’another hypothesis interesting and lucky is the one for which “scarpetta” calls “little bag”used above all in southern Italy in the past to indicate poverty, which forced people to make do with the little available and not to waste anything.

Although this saying is widespread throughout Italy, from North to South, there are different outcomes of this expression along the specific regions of the country; each has its own personal way of understanding the same act: in the central-northern area, in particular in Lombardy and Piedmont, it is widely used to dipas well as in some areas of Puglia and south-eastern Sicily. Always in Sicily, as in Calabria, we will hear the use of ato marry, to marry, to marry. In Bologna they say to make a little touchas in Florence to do the wheelchair or to overdo itand in Biella to study.

Finally, if you have ever wondered whether you can mop up the bread at a restaurant, you should know that according to the Etiquette the answer is Yesas long as you only use your fingertips to hold the bread, being careful not to touch the sauce except with the latter! The master also confirms this Chef Gualtiero Marchesi who in many statements has decreed that there is nothing better for a chef than a dish that returns to the kitchen shiny and clean with taste.