"I t is pronounced, 'bru-skay-ta,'" groaned my husband Patrick after I slaughtered the pronunciation for the millionth time. That thought kept popping into my head as I asked store clerks where to find bruschetta. Not one store clerk knew what I was asking for until I followed up with the Americanized pronunciation, "brushetta." I was hunting out ready-made bruschetta that tasted like homemade. My friend Bernice is throwing a Mardi Gras party for 75 people, and she wants to start the night with a round of bruschetta, but doesn't want to spend a lot of time chopping tomatoes. I suggested ready-made bruschetta. She winced and said, "If you can find a good one, I'll serve it."
I ran to all the local stores and gathered all the bruschetta I could lay hands on, then called my friend Sarah to help Patrick and me taste-test them. Sarah lived in Rome for a few years. "They have the best tomatoes there," she said, "and my Italian friends would make bruschetta often. A few hours before serving it, they would prepare the topping -- chopped tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and salt -- and set it in the refrigerator. When the bread came out of the oven, they would rub half a clove of garlic on the bread, and the garlic flavor would sink into the bread. Then they would take the topping and spread it over the toasted bread.
"It sometimes was served with a slice of a whole tomato, not diced tomatoes," she added.
We pried open the tub from Whole Foods: Cibo Naturals Bruschetta topping ( $6.99 for 10 oz.). Within a minute, the whole room was filled with the aroma of basil. "Smells good," Sarah said as she piled a little onto a slice of baguette, "but I am left a little disappointed after by the taste. It's kind of flavorless."
"Tastes like simmered-down spaghetti sauce," added Patrick.
The Buitoni Bruschetta Tuscan ( $4.99 for 10.5 oz. at Ralphs) was liked by the whole table but not as bruschetta. "The smoky grilled- pepper taste is not a bad flavor, but it is more like a tapenade than a bruschetta," said Patrick.
The Buitoni Bruschetta Classic ( $4.99 for 10.5 oz. at Albertsons) suffered a similar dilemma; good flavor, but not what one would expect out of a bruschetta.
Thus began a discussion of what makes a true bruschetta. Wikipedia says, "Bruschetta is a food originating in central Italy. It consists of grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Variations may include toppings of spicy red pepper, tomato, vegetables, and/or cheese.... The noun 'bruschetta' is from the verb in the Roman dialect 'bruscare,' meaning 'to roast over coals.' The meaning of the word has changed, so that now some Americans typically use the word 'bruschetta' to refer to the topping itself, not the dish."
"When bruschetta is made fresh," declared Sarah, "the flavors are more individual, and the effect is closer to an antipasto or a salad as opposed to a spread or a salsa."
Patrick agreed. "When you put all the ingredients into a jar, the flavors all become one, and the texture becomes homogenous."
We forged ahead.
Vons sold a frozen bruschetta, Safeway Select Bruschetta Pesto, Mozzarella, and Tomato ( $3.69 for a six count), which were slices of bread with the topping ready to be heated in the oven. "That looks horrible," said Sarah, pulling it out of the oven, "like something that has been sitting on the counter for a day or two." The taste was like pesto pizza -- heavy basil, but not fresh basil, with a bland cheese flavor. "At best, this is a college-dorm snack," commented Sarah, "but you are probably better off just buying frozen pizza instead."
We finally found a keeper in Bellino Bruschetta Tomato Topping ( $5.29 for 17 oz.) from Mona Lisa in Little Italy. It had the consistency of chunky tomato sauce, and instead of basil it had oregano. But the tomato flavor was what it ought to be, and we decided that with a little sprinkle of basil, you could have something close to a fresh bruschetta.
The last group was from Trader Joe's. First up, Trader Joe's Sun Dried Tomato Bruschetta ( $2.99 for 12 oz.), which was dripping in oil. The overpowering richness of the sun-dried tomatoes combined with the oil left us grasping for our water glasses. "To me," Sarah said, "it seems like something you'd use as an ingredient in another dish, maybe as a flavor base for some kind of sauce. I'd never serve this on toast."
Of the Trader Joe's Italian Bruschetta ( $3.29 for 14 oz.), Sarah winced, "The olives don't smell the best, though the smell is deceiving because the flavors are fresh and tasty."
"It looks like salsa and tastes like olive tapenade," added Patrick. "It's something I would serve at a party -- I like olive tapenade -- but I wouldn't call it bruschetta."
Trader Giotto's Bruschetta ( $2.29 for 12 oz. in a glass jar) had a fresh blast of tomato and a good balance of tomato and basil, though the little bit of onion it contained made us all think of spaghetti sauce.
By dumb luck, we saved the best for last: Trader Giotto's Fresh Bruschetta Sauce ( $2.49 for a 14.5 oz. tub) from the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's. The diced tomatoes looked like they were chopped five minutes earlier. "You can see tomatoes and you can see clear juice," commented Patrick, "instead of a thick, homogenous spread like the rest of these."
"The garlic hits you later," added Sarah, "fresh tomato, strong garlic. This one tastes most like the fresh bruschetta I ate in Italy."