A plate of bucatini all’amatriciana, one of my favorites, has arrived steaming in front of me many times. The procedure is always the same. It’s savory red sauce, spiced with pieces of black pepper and salty guanciale glistened from the drizzled olive oil. The pasta was al dente, sticking just right to my teeth and merging with the thick sauce. I battled the hollow snakes to twirl just the right amount onto my fork while hauling just enough topping, a delicate pasta to sauce balance that would make each bite flawless in flavor and texture. The remains of the meal were the bits and pieces, the drippings and juices. This was no job for the fork; there were no more long ribbons to twirl or sauce to scoop. These misfit trimmings necessitated meticulous care. Satisfied and ebullient, I grabbed a piece of bread and did the little shoe.
Wait, that’s not right… No shoe, little or big, was involved.
Fare la scarpetta, literally translated, means to do the little shoe, but it refers to the act – or art – of taking a piece of fluffy bread and sopping up chunks of sauce, beads of oil or whatever else might be left on one’s plate at the end of a meal. In English, we might also say to wipe your plate clean. Or to dip your bread in the sauce. Why do Italians have a specific word for this? Their relationship with food has influenced the way they speak, the terms they have created to describe habits. So, how might we translate this? We don’t. Doing the little shoe doesn’t mean anything, but just saying wipe your plate clean with bread is clunky and doesn’t quite have the same cultural punch that Fare la scarpetta does. Instead, we can use other cues to convey the significance that it has, but this also depends on the type of content.
“I slid my little slice of bread across the plate like a football player’s cleat plows the turf as they go in for the winning goal” probably isn’t suitable to all content.
Other words and phrases can be likewise difficult to translate. For example, the names for foods, like guanciale, used above. It is a sort of bacon made from the jowls of a pig, but just saying bacon doesn’t quite work, nor does Italian bacon because there’s also pancetta. Some might recognize the Italian word itself, but most won’t, so an explanation might be necessary. When ordering pizza, if you wish to share two pizzas with your dining companion, meaning you each have a half of two types of pizza on one plate, you would ask the waiter ce le sposi per favore, to marry the pizzas. Other phrases might be idioms that can be translated but don’t resonate with non-Italian readers, for example la bocca non è stracca se non sa di vacca. The literal translation would be: a mouth isn’t satisfied if it doesn’t taste like cow, meaning that a meal should be finished off with cheese. But if you aren’t from a culture where this is the norm you might wonder why the cheese is to be eaten last. These types of words and phrases need to be culturally translated, whether that’s with an in-text explanation, a footnote or the use of metaphor. Because everyone should know about the importance of the scarpetta.