You know you've been living somewhere a while when idioms you once would have wondered at cease to raise so much as an eyebrow.
When a reader wrote to me recently to inquire about the Italian expression for 'mopping your plate with bread', I found myself replying nonchalantly: “Oh yes, you mean fare la scarpetta, which is… um… 'to do the little shoe'.”
On second thoughts, it is weird.
Scarpetta is just the regular word for shoe (scarpa) with the diminuitive suffix ~etta/o attached. Most of the time it refers to shoes that are either small, like kids' shoes, or especially light, like ballet slippers or tennis pumps.
But in this particular idiom, it describes an action anyone who's ever eaten in Italy can picture right away: using a scrap of bread to mop up all the sauce too delicious to leave when you've already polished off your pasta.
See below for a demonstration:
Where slippers come into it isn't clear. One theory goes that your piece of bread starts to look like a shoe when you're pressing your thumb into it to keep your grip, while another runs that scarpetta refers to an old type of pasta traditionally made in Tuscany that was shaped, well, a bit like a slipper: broad and concave, all the better to scoop up sauce.
Yet another version suggests that the phrase is an oblique reference to poverty: since mopping up every drop of sauce isn't exactly genteel table manners, it may have been derogatorily attributed to people who didn't have enough to eat – so poor they could only afford slippers, or perhaps so hungry they could eat a shoe.
These days it's perfectly acceptable to wipe your plate clean (just keep a napkin handy for after). The reader who asked about the phrase says she was informed of it by an Italian restaurant owner, who must have taken it as a compliment that his customers didn't want to leave a drop behind.
He also referred to another regional variation on the phrase, our reader tells me. The only alternatives I've been able to track down are pucciare il pane nel sugo ('to dunk bread in sauce'), which seems to come from the north of Italy, and possibly fare la sponza ('to do the sponge'), which could be a version in the far south.
There's also fare la zuppetta ('to do the little soup'), but in that case the image seems to be more of dunking bread or biscuits in a whole bowl of milk, wine or any other liquid.
However you want to say it, I think we can all agree: fare la scarpetta is a wonderful thing.
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