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Is it bruschetta
or crostini?

Somewhere along the way, from the time we first borrowed the words “bruschetta” and “crostini” from the Italian lexicon, we blurred their distinctions and obscured their true identities.

 

The original Italian meanings of the words are fairly clear. Crostini means, “Little toasts,” and traditionally referred to small, thin slices of Italian bread, toasted and used as a base for canapés, generally with a savoury spread such as tapenade, liver pate, or cheeses. They were even sometimes grilled or fried, and used as garnish in soups and salads. The key here is that they were crispy and small.

 

Bruschetta comes from the Italian word, bruscare which means “roasted over coals”. In Tuscany, thick slices of farmers’ bread were lightly toasted, rubbed with garlic cloves, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then drizzled with the new crop olive oil. It was meant to focus on the flavour of the new oils and only the oil. Sometimes, a tomato salad with chopped fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, and balsamic vinegar was heaped on top of the warm bread.

 

I am sure that in the beginning, when we first began to use these words, we had it right, but one thing led to another. The distinction between the two toasts was too ambiguous for us to fully grasp and for most North Americans, the words came to mean little more than garlic toast.

 

To make matters worse, I began to see tubs of “tomato bruschetta” in deli sections and even sold in jars. Bruschetta was now our word for the tomato salad that could be served on garlic toast. What have we done to these wonderful Italian foods!

 

At our catering business, we are guilty of this crime. We call the bowl of tomato salad “bruschetta” and it goes out with a basket of crostini or garlic toasts. We also serve crostini with sundried tomato and chèvre spread or tapenade; more traditional crostini toppings. This is served at room temperature as an hors d’oeuvre. The crostini are kept small to make them easy to handle in a stand-up situation without need for a knife and fork, and requiring only a cocktail napkin.

The proper pronunciation for bruschetta is “broo-SKEH-tah.” The other, Americanized pronunciation is “broo-SHEH-tah.” I will be the first to admit that I use the latter; I have my reasons.

 

I happened to be flipping past the cooking channel a few months ago, and caught one of those annoying, squeaky voiced female chefs (?) explaining how she differentiates between crostini and “broo-SKEH-tah.” She tried to say that one of the two, I think crostini, was toasted first and then the toppings put on later; the other was assembled all at once and baked in the oven. I can see a dozen holes in that theory, but I didn’t stick around to hear her full explanation.

 

Hearing an obvious non-Italian repeating “broo-SKEH-tah,” over and over in her American voice affected me like fingernails on a blackboard; the same reaction I get from an obviously non-Italian male saying, “Ciao Bella!” There are few men who can get away with that greeting without coming across as a gigolo and sending shivers of the icky kind up my spine.

 

But, give me a true Italian waiter, and he can say “broo-SKEH-tah” and “Ciao Bella” all he wants. In our favourite Italian restaurant in Calgary, Osteria de Medici, it was automatic that our dinner would start with a first course of tomato bruschetta, still warm from the oven. The golden-brown diagonally-cut piece of Italian white bread would be placed on our side plate, topped with a balsamic-sweet tomato salad. There was no question, unless you really liked paying drycleaner bills, of attempting to eat this in your fingers. It definitely called for a knife and fork.

 

For me, that is one of the main differences between bruschetta and crostini. I think of crostini as finger food; a canapé. One or two bites with a savoury spread that isn’t going to land in your lap, often served at room temperature.  Baskets of crostini can be toasted and wrapped for later use and you can even buy bags of crostini. Crostini pizzas are also a common appetizer in catering circles. Perhaps it is a word association thing: crostini and teeny.

 

Bruschetta should be fresh and warm when eaten. The soft bread should be cut thick and saturated with garlicky olive oil. Toppings for bruschetta are most often of a salad type, from marinated eggplant, to shrimp salad, to bean salad; generally requiring a knife and fork, or at the very least, a plate. You can find many recipes for warm, savoury toppings, especially in newer Italian cookbooks, but these are also of the saucy kind, not safe for finger food.

 

This is a totally subjective, gut feeling distinction and perhaps you will see many holes in my theory. I found it amusing that in a new cookbook I have, a compilation of recipes from some of today’s top chefs, the Italian chef has a recipe for mushroom bruschetta that is suspiciously similar to the British chap’s mushrooms on toast! Maybe we would all be better off or at least more accurate if we kept to our garlic toast, leaving the bruschetta and crostini to the Italians.


 

Tidbit

In light of the whole James Frey/Oprah thing, I must admit that some of the things I might infer about Jordan’s cooking and picky eating habits may be exaggerated somewhat to get a bigger laugh. Also, any memories of my childhood are by definition, my memories, and not necessarily those of my siblings or my mother.