The first time I had fette biscottate, I threw one in my mouth plain. I coughed. I choked. It did not taste like food. It tasted like one of those cheap, brown paper napkins from a fast-food restaurant.
If you’ve never encountered this Italian pantry staple, imagine a beautiful, fluffy piece of white bread, flattened a bit, and then toasted, toasted, and toasted again on the lowest toaster setting — I’m talking like a two — until it’s basically obliterated. The end result is hard as a rock but somehow not burnt, not even well done. It’s just, dry. Despite the fact that they are fundamentally just dry slices of actual wheat bread, fette biscottate have a lot more in common with cardboard. They’re so flavorless even my carb-obsessed 5-year-old will take one bite and spit it on the ground.
And yet I adore them.
This type of twice-baked bread is widely consumed across Europe and Asia, but I first experienced it when, in the early 2000s, I shared an apartment in Milan with two young Italian girls. I watched my roommates for cues on how to assimilate, eventually realizing the easiest way to turn into an Italian was to eat like one. I investigated their cupboards, mirrored their selections when I went shopping, and coughed my way through my inaugural fette biscottate.
The internet doesn’t translate “fette biscottate” as “crackers” or “biscuits.” It goes with “rusks.” The word rusk means nothing to me. I can’t even conjure an image in my head. As someone who speaks Italian, the translation in my brain is more like “sliced cookie breads,” which is also misleading because there is nothing remotely cookie-like about them. Nor do they bear any resemblance to the nut-studded things packaged in cellophane and found near cash registers at coffee shops known in America as biscotti. If you’re looking for a cookie, eat a cookie. If you’re looking for a carbohydrate surfboard, look no further than fette biscottate.
While their lackluster English name accurately describes their dull, tasteless nature, it fails to communicate their wonderful potential when combined with toppings. It wasn’t until I observed my Italian roommates as they brought out marmalade and ricotta with their fette biscottate, and when I watched them steam milk on the stove for their espresso to enjoy alongside, that I truly understood. I gathered my own slew of toppings, steamed my milk, and soon fette biscottate made up the majority of my Italian mornings. The allure of fette biscottate isn’t in what they inherently are, it’s in what they can be. You can load them up with marmalade and ricotta, or go with Nutella. Honey, jam, butter, and nut butter all work. There is not a spread around they can’t handle. With the flick of a butter knife, they become a blank canvas — almost literally — for morning creativity. Their versatility keeps them exciting, day after day.
Though so brittle they practically crumble under the weight of your breath, fette biscottate can take on more weight than seemingly possible. They’re like the ants of the breakfast table. Yet they somehow manage to stay dry at the same time. Fette biscottate are absolutely devoid of moisture. If you were stuck in a desert with nothing to eat or drink, consuming one might actually kill you. But that desiccation provides just the right contrast to a juicy jam or fatty nut butter. It’s the parched yin to a rich, moisturizing yang; the height and glory of balance.
Spreads and fette biscottate are a powerful combo, but the little rusks reach an even higher plane when they meet a latte, combining the crunch on the edges, the soft middle, the warm coffee, and the cool spread. However, dunking a jam-covered rusk is a textural tightrope. If you dare to bite into one without dipping it, you receive a mountain of crumbs at your feet. On the other hand, fette biscottate crumble in hot milk like a sand castle to water. There are but a few seconds after dunking a piece into a latte before it becomes part of your drink. Only by risking such destruction can you achieve ultimate flavor.
Unfortunately for us all, fette biscottate just don’t fly in the States. Here we prefer our packaged breakfast treats with some built-in hydration, preloaded with sugar and fat, moisture and flavor. I love granola bars, Pop-Tarts, and Toaster Strudels as much as the next American, but they’re prefabricated objects designed for lazy mornings. They require nothing of us.
The closest thing to fette biscottate I can find in a giant, American grocery store today are French “egalite” rusks, ironically located in the “luxury” cheese section. They rub shoulders with highbrow boxes of crackers, not daring to associate with the Ritz a few aisles over. The flavor isn’t wildly different from fette biscottate, but they don’t fulfill my needs. They’re too hard and too small, roughly a quarter of the proper size. One would need to eat 20 to feel the same heft as four or five fette biscottate. I could top them with jam, but it seems wrong given their association with cheese. Still, if I’m being honest, their true offense is that they are not Italian.
When I do find myself craving uncraveable toasts, I order fette biscottate from Eataly, Amazon, or one of myriad internet sellers with rather generic names like Italian Food Store Online. The package itself is usually affordable (around $4 or $5), but after shipping, it’s a scary price for a pocket-sized, dried-out piece of bread.
But I gladly pay it from time to time, usually when fall comes around and the air feels like it did when I first landed in Milan. I can practically smell the memory of my Italian breakfasts. I’ll eat fette biscottate at my table in Wisconsin and imagine myself back in Italy, where people can take something as boring and dry as a rusk and make it into something that sounds — and is — as beautiful as fette biscottate.
Kelly Green likes dogs more than you do. She is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, where most of her running routes end in front of a bakery.