In the twentieth century (so long ago), any Western European restaurant, bistro, café, or trattoria server would place a basket or dish of bread on your table, even before you ordered a meal. In Italy, they called it pane e servizio, “bread and table setting (and service with or without a smile).” Servers expected you to order your water, wine, and food, but bread on the table was a given, although a fee for it was added to every bill. On recent trips to Italy, our restaurant bill noted only servizio at a 15-20% charge, and bread was an extra if we chose to order it.
Times have changed and so has the expectation that no meal is complete without bread. The absence of a bread basket on my table in Florence or Annecy surprised me. I usually agree with James Beard who said, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods, and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” I would have thought Italians and the French were still committed to that premise of satisfying dining, but now bread is often a matter of choice.
Did bread lose its charm with the increasingly widespread rejection of gluten especially wheat gluten? Celiac disease is an immune reaction to a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Eating gluten triggers an immune response in the human small intestine and can interfere with the absorption of nutrients. About 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1% of the population suffer from celiac disease. That’s a lot of people. Their affliction, however, has not limited access to “breads.” Recently I perused the King Arthur Baker’s catalog to replenish my larder of bread and cookie mixes. An extensive selection of gluten-free products was also available in the catalog. If I shop online or in the supermarket, gluten-free products are usually abundantly available.
And that’s fine. Many people have digestive systems that don’t tolerate gluten. They suffer from cramps, flatulence, and general malaise when they eat a wheat, barley, or rye product. Fortunately, they can find substitutes. Even Eataly has a huge selection of fine gluten-free pastas. I don’t have that problem, but I can sympathize. At this point in my life, a chunk of baguette with butter means an additional pound on the scale the next morning.
But back to restaurants—do they suspect that many of their customers will not eat bread, so why put it out? Perhaps considering allergies, diets that eschew grain-based foods, caveman eating choices, or reluctance for perfectly good bread to go stale and end in the garbage, the neighborhood trattoria in Trastevere welcomes customers with “Buon giorno. Would you like bubbly or still water?” and leaves the customer with just the table setting, the menus, and no bread. The greatest of feast will have to do without it unless you say, “oh, waiter, don’t forget the bread.”