bruschetta

A platter of bruschetta shows the variety of toppings for this simple concept. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / September 15, 2011)

A dreary November day in Umbria. On the shores of Lake Trasimeno, the holiday boats are pulled up and covered. We're visiting the frantoio of one of my favorite olive oil producers, Alfredo Mancianti, as he grinds a mound of purple-black olives into paste beneath an old stone wheel. He pops a couple of slices of bread into a beat-up electric toaster oven, rubs them lightly with just a touch of garlic, then spoons over a little golden green oil that has floated up from the crushed olives. A sprinkle of salt and he's done.

That's probably the single best bruschetta I've ever eaten, and, on context alone, one of the best foods period. It's also one of the simplest. And therein lies what is probably the most important thing you should know about bruschetta: It's a celebration of simplicity, of the Italian art of making something amazing from next to nothing.

On the other hand, maybe they were crostini. As long as I've been pondering the difference between the two, I'm still not sure. My understanding (backed up by my tattered copy of "Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia") is that a bruschetta is a basic thing — the only endorsed topping beyond the basic olive oil and salt is a little chopped tomato.

Crostini are fancier, more like canapes or cocktail snacks. Crostini may be more sophisticated, but the bruschetta retains a certain simple profundity. It's like the difference between a pop single and a folk song.

My definition may or may not be the same as yours. The good thing is that it really doesn't matter, we're free of such strictures in California. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't honor the philosophy. I may flout tradition by topping bruschetta with any number of unsanctioned ingredients, but I do try to remember that simpler is better. There is elegance in restraint.

As long as we're talking about bruschetta, please indulge me in a brief — yes, certainly pedantic — rant. In Italy, the combination "ch" is pronounced like a hard "c," so "bruschetta" is brew-SKET-a, or even, for the truly fastidious, brew-SKATE-a. Pronouncing it brew-SHET-a is like dragging your fingernails across a chalkboard, even though some very smart and very nice people do it. Chiaro?

When I was cooking a dinner party for a good friend recently, she suggested we try an idea she had seen in a magazine, something the authors called a "bruschetta bar" — setting out toast, olive oil, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and letting guests construct their own bruschetta. I liked the idea — there's nothing that enlivens a dinner like forcing your guests to help prepare their own food.

That assortment didn't seem particularly generous, so I added a couple more toppings — grilled figs, prosciutto and fresh ricotta — just for a touch of abbondanza. It was a lot of fun, but afterward it struck me that even that expanded selection really was just a start. Particularly at this time of year, when the markets are overflowing with the best of the summer vegetables — tomatoes, eggplant, peppers — the possibilities for bruschetta toppings are almost limitless.

Offer a platter of toasted bread, a couple of bowls of different kinds of cheese and an assortment of summer's best vegetables prepared in varied enough ways, and you've got a real bruschetta bar.

Guests can build their own, topping the bread with a little roasted eggplant, or grilled pepper or chopped tomato. Then a smidgen of cheese and maybe a little torn basil or chopped mint. Or they can mix and match: That eggplant puree is delicious with a sliver of pepper.

Just encourage them to show a little restraint. When it comes to bruschetta, beauty lies in simplicity.

Bread

Slice a baguette about half an inch thick, or maybe a little less. Cut it on a slight bias to extend the surface so it will hold more topping. If you want to be authentic, grill the bread over a medium fire until it's toasted on both sides. Cut an unpeeled clove of garlic in half and rub the cut side against the bread. Finally, drizzle it with olive oil. If you have friends who hate garlic (you don't, do you?), you can do half of the bread with the garlic rub and the other half without.

Be careful when you're grilling the bread since it will scorch very easily; you can tell when it's time to turn by watching the top side, when it begins to look opaque and white, it's time.

If you want to play it safe, you can also arrange the slices on a cookie sheet and bake them at 400 degrees. When they start to brown on the bottom, about 10 to 15 minutes, flip them and go an additional five to 10 minutes to finish. Although they'll lack some of the smoky savor of the grilled, they'll be cooked evenly and without nearly the risk of scorching. You can usually figure on 20 to 25 slices from a baguette.

Cheeses

Choose one spreadable cheese that has a really fresh clean flavor, such as a good brand of ricotta, or a fresh goat (or even a combination of the two). Choose one cheese that is rich, such as burrata or fresh mozzarella. And choose one salty cheese. Ricotta salata is a good one — shave off long thin slices with a vegetable peeler. A good feta is another — cut it in a small dice or simply crumble it between your fingers.

Fresh herbs

Nothing fancy — a big bowl of torn basil and a little one of minced fresh parsley or mint will be fine.