Bruschetta originated in Central Italy in the 15th century when it was common practice to salvage day old bread by consuming it toasted and drizzled with olive oil. Renowned Italian food expert, Marcella Hazan however, believes bruschetta’s origins can be traced to ancient Rome when olive growers bringing their crop of olives to the olive press would test the freshly pressed olive oil on toasted slices of bread, a practice which continues in parts of Tuscany today.
Although bruschetta was consumed as a main meal in the past, nowadays it is served as an appetizer or starter dish, known as “antipasto” in Italian. Traditionally, bruschetta simply consisted of day old slices of toasted bread, rubbed with fresh garlic cloves (known as “aglio” in Italian), drizzled with olive oil (“olio d’oliva” in Italian) and sprinkled with salt (“sale” in Italian).
Today however, bruschetta has evolved to include a variety of toppings be it mushrooms, seafood such as anchovies, meats such as prosciutto, cheeses such as mozzarella and vegetables such as zucchini, tomatoes and bell peppers. The most popular version worldwide is probably “bruschetta al pomodoro” i.e., bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes (“pomodoro” in Italian) and fresh basil (“basilico” in Italian). Italian cuisine tends to be very regional and seasonal so modern-day bruschetta would likely be topped with anchovies in Rome, tomatoes in Puglia and oregano in Sicily.
The simplicity of authentic bruschetta is no testament to its taste which relies on quality ingredients and proper preparation methods to bring out the appetizer’s true flavor. First, a homemade bread known in Italian as “pane casereccio” (“pane” means “bread” and “casereccio” means “homemade”) forms the base. The bread must have a substantial crumb with fairly large cavities (to absorb the olive oil) and should ideally be a day old. Slice the bread to thick, chunky slices; too thin and you’ll end up with crostini. Toast the bread over a “brustolina” as Italians do, until the slices develop a crunchy crust but soft inside. Traditionally, wood or charcoal were used and these lend a distinct aroma and taste to the final bruschetta.
Next, use a clove of raw garlic and rub the surface of the hot toasted bread. It is critical that the garlic does not overpower the aroma and flavor of the olive oil and hence one clove of garlic is usually sufficient for two slices of bread. It is also important that the bread slices are still hot; this way the garlic flavor melts onto the bread subtly rather than overpoweringly. Modern day bruschetta recipes sometimes feature garlic powder or garlic cream. However these substitutes stray from the authentic method of preparation and hence the flavor and nutrition is not as good as bruschetta prepared with a clove of fresh raw garlic.
The quality of the olive oil is critical since it lends a distinct flavor to the bruschetta. The aroma, taste and density of Italian olive oils vary by region and the choice of olive oil used is up to individual tastes. What is important is to use the freshest and fruitiest extra virgin olive oil.
If using tomatoes, use the ripest, freshest tomatoes, ideally Roma tomatoes. Frozen or canned tomatoes are unmistakably inferior flavor-wise and nutrition-wise compared to fresh tomatoes.
Bruschetta tastes best when served freshly made while still hot.
- 2 cloves garlic
- 4 slices of homemade bread – sliced to ½ or ¾ inches thick and about 3 inches wide
- Olive oil as desired
- Sea salt
Optional tomato topping:
- 2-3 Roma tomatoes – seeded, diced to ½ inch cubes
- 3-4 basil leaves – torn to small pieces
- Olive oil as desired
- Black pepper – freshly ground
- Salt as desired
Using a “brustolina”, toast the slices of bread over moderate heat over burning wood or charcoal, until toasted on both sides. Ensure the bread develops a crunchy crust but is soft inside.
Smash the garlic clove and rub over the hot bread slices (one clove of garlic for two slices of bread).
Drizzle olive oil generously over the toasted bread.
Season with salt.
If using the tomato topping, combine the ingredients for the tomato topping just before serving the bruschetta.
Top each slice with the mixture and serve immediately.