16 Aug

Man could live on bread and olive oil

By Nicholas Boer,

BRUSCHETTA IS TOAST, literally. But it’s also trendy — especially in summer, when chefs top it with tomatoes. To earn the name, however, all you need is good olive oil and coarse salt.

Peter Chastain, chef of Prima in Walnut Creek, calls bruschetta “the quintessential food” of Tuscany and Umbria, surmising its popularity is due both as a way to use up leftover bread and as an easy way to enjoy extraordinary olive oil.

But the very fact that bruschetta is so basic is what makes finding a perfect version so difficult. I ordered bruschetta at four restaurants last week and found that even getting the toast right was a challenge. “The grill is the ultimate,” he says. “Over wood, over coal — even gas.” Grill it on both sides until dark, not black, and drizzle on the olive oil while still warm.

If you want a garlic flavor, rub the bread — after it’s cooked — with a large garlic clove that’s been cut in half and nicked (crosshatched) with a small, sharp knife. The biggest no-no he sees is when chefs use minced garlic. “What I’ve never seen in Italy is raw garlic and tomatoes,” he says. “You can taste the garlic the next day. It’s just terrible.”

Chastain says the best bruschetta he’s been served was at an upscale trattoria in Assisi featuring rustic cuts of meat on a 20-foot grill. They started his family off with three grilled pieces of bread, one with tomato, another with bechamel sauce and a third with pesto — red, white and green — the colors of the Italian flag.

Peasant & the Pear

Every night, the Peasant & the Pear offers a trio of bruschetta for just $5.95. They’re dainty, like an amuse bouche, designed to get your juices flowing as you decide on the rest of your meal.

A recent night offered Foie Gras with Sour Cherries; Goat Cheese with Nectarines and Triple Cream Brie with DaVero Meyer Lemon Olive Oil — a favorite of chef-owner Rod Worth.

“I think DaVero is by far the best olive oil around,” he says.

Worth uses Metropolis baguettes, which he cuts on the bias into 1/4-inch-thick-by-4-inch-long points. To toast, he uses a panini machine, which guarantees a crisp exterior and creates little grooves that hold pockets of whatever spread he’s using.

Two of his all-time favorite combinations are Laura Chenel Goat Cheese with Fresh Blackberries and Serrano Ham with Manchego. Worth’s version of tomato bruschetta is a slice of Brandywine (an heirloom variety), homemade mozzarella and a drizzle of basil oil.

On my anonymous visit, each toast was light and fresh, with no garlic in sight.

Il Fornaio

The best-tasting tomato bruschetta was also the one I could watch being prepared in the exhibition kitchen. Three slices of bread are lightly grilled, while chopped, seeded tomatoes are tossed with basil oil, salt and pepper (basil oil can be made by pureeing blanched salted basil leaves in extra virgin olive oil and straining through cheesecloth). The tomatoes are piled high and, like every tomato bruschetta I tried, came garnished with whole olives on the side.

Mangia Bene

Mangia Bene bakes its own bread and uses it as a platform for a flavorful mix of tomatoes, diced red onion and capers.

“The most important ingredient is the extra virgin olive oil — you put it directly on top of the toast,” says Roy Tatiarini, manager since the restaurant opened 10 years ago. “The last thing you put on is olive oil, too,” he says.

Tatiarini says bruschetta is originally a Jewish dish. “It’s one of the oldest appetizers,” he says. “Just plain bread topped with anything that’s available.”

When tomatoes aren’t in season, you might find Mangia Bene offering bruschetta with tapenade — a fine mince of olives, onions and garlic. Tatiarini’s all-time favorite is anchovies.

The toasts on my visit were extra-crisp and soaked with olive oil. The only drawback was the tomatoes themselves, which were neatly diced but under-ripe.

“The toast has to be firm,” Tatiarini says. “With all the juices, if it sits, it gets soggy. It requires a little technique and precision.”

Piatti Locali

By far the best-tasting tomatoes used at any of the restaurants I visited were the heirlooms at Piatti Locali, where chef Michael Baker’s staff chops up a colorful variety and tosses them with olive oil, basil and minced garlic before each shift.

The garlic was a little hot and two of the four toasts weren’t crisp on my visit, but the juicy sweetness of the heirlooms made a big difference.

Baker’s wild mushroom (in winter) and asparagus (spring) bruschettas sound even more tempting. They are both served, warm, with crescenza cheese and white truffle oil. Another bonus: Baker uses pugliese bread (Chastain’s and Mom’s favorite) toasted over a wood-fired grill.

All the important women in my life have been toast-lovers. My Italian ex sprinkles on olive oil and salt in the morning. My Spanish ex presses a tomato half against the toast, extracting the juices, and discarding the tomato.

That last method, according to Chastain, is also an Italian classic. He recommends a nice acidic tomato, such as Early Girl (heirlooms are too tame, he says). “Find a tomato a little on the squishy side,” Chastain says. “And just squishle it on.”

His favorite way to prepare tomato for bruschetta?

“Cut the tomato crosswise, knock the seeds out, squeeze out the juice and grate the tomato on the big holes of a box grater, leaving the skin behind.”

What you get is pure, gorgeous pulp. All you need is some toast, salt and extra virgin olive oil.

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