On my first trip to Italy years ago, I came across an 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. He 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. 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.
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. 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), or a top extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany, Umbria or Spain.
Cut the bread at least an inch thick. 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.