Americans have certainly become more sophisticated during the past 10 years in their appreciation of Italian cuisine. We flock to Tuscan, Piedmontese and other northern Italian-style restaurants. We savor extra virgin olive oils with the connoisseurship of oenophiles sipping wine. We devour grissini, crostini and focaccia with a gusto we once reserved for sliced, white bread.

In our rush to become cognoscenti of authentic Italian cooking, however, we have turned our backs on many of the Italo-American specialties we grew up on. The sort of fare served at restaurants with red lights, red checkered tablecloths and candles in chianti bottles. The homey sort of Italian fare embodied by a dish like garlic bread.

Garlic bread isn't really Italian. I've never seen it at a restaurant in Italy. Mention pan al aglio to the average Italian and he'll look at you with incomprehension. Like spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread is an Italo-American creation, a dish made with Italian ingredients, but firmly rooted in American soil.

Garlic bread may have been inspired by Roman bruschetta, Tuscan fettunta, or Piedmontese soma d'ai -- variations on a theme of grilled bread drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with cut garlic. But it took a trip across the Atlantic to raise this rustic snack to the level of art.

Sophisticated? No. Delectable? You betcha! Garlic bread has rounded out innumerable college spaghetti feasts and budget dinners. It may not be trendy, but it sure is tasty, fun and easy to prepare. So, it's about time to rehabilitate this Italo-American classic.

Garlic bread requires just three ingredients: garlic, butter (or oil) and bread. The bread should be crusty on the outside, firm and white on the inside. If you're in a hurry, you can slice partially through the loaf, leaving the slices attached at the bottom. Spread the garlic butter between the slices and bake the loaf until crisp. Garlic bread prepared in this fashion will have a strong flavor, as most of the garlic is not exposed directly to the heat.

I prefer to slice the bread, toast it, and spread the garlic butter on top. To make crisp garlic bread, brush the slices with olive oil or melted butter and bake them in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned on both sides. To make soft garlic bread, spread the garlic butter on fresh bread slices and heat them under the broiler until lightly browned (2 to 3 minutes). For more crusty bread use a French-style baguette; for a more doughy product use Italian-style bread.

When buying the garlic, look for firm, heavy heads, with unblemished cloves that are tightly wrapped in their papery skins. Green shoots or shriveled cloves are indicative of garlic that has been sitting around too long.

The strength of the garlic flavor is determined less by how much garlic is added than by how it is prepared. A whole head of garlic slowly roasted in the oven is milder than a single clove smashed with the side of a cleaver. The more finely garlic is chopped, the stronger the flavor.

Garlic owes its pungency to a malodorous compound called diallyl disulphide, which is activated when it comes in contact with oxygen. Thus, the more finely garlic is chopped, the stronger the flavor. The bulb's pungency is also diminished when the garlic is cooked.

For a mild garlic flavor, simmer a whole or half clove of garlic in olive oil or melted butter, then discard it before spreading the oil or butter on the bread. Or, roast an unpeeled clove in the oven until soft, then mash it and spread on bread or mix it into oil or butter. For a nose-blasting redolence, finely chop or crush the garlic and use it raw or briefly cooked.

To remove the skin from a clove of garlic, lay it on a cutting board and lightly smash it with the heel of your palm or the side of a knife. This loosens the skin enough for you to slip it off.

To mince the garlic, cut across the cloves into 1/4-inch slices. Stand these on edge on the cutting board. Lay the widest part of a chopping knife or cleaver over each slice and smash the knife with your fist. (Angle the cutting edge downward to avoid cutting yourself.) This will reduce the garlic to an odoriferous paste.

Garlic can also be mashed in a mortar with a pestle or crushed in a garlic press before being added to the oil or butter. Freshly chopped garlic tastes infinitely better than garlic powder or even than the commercially chopped garlic packaged in oil.

Garlic bread may be simple, but it doesn't have to be plebeian. Consider the following recipes:


(8 servings)

The Bubble Room in Captiva, Fla., is one of the nation's most distinctive restaurants, a fantasy land crammed to the rafters with antique toys, serviced by waiters in scout uniforms, specializing in belly-bludgeoning portions of American food. The owners refuse to part with the recipe for their famous Bubble Bread, but here's how I suspect they make it.

1 loaf Italian bread

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 to 3 cloves garlic

2 ounces prosciutto, minced

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Approximately 6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

Cut the bread on the diagonal into 3/4-inch slices. Arrange the slices on a baking sheet. Lightly toast the bread on both sides under a preheated broiler.

Cream the butter in a mixing bowl. Mince the garlic and prosciutto and add them to the butter. Beat in half of the Parmesan cheese and pepper. (Note: you probably won't need salt, as the ham and cheese are quite salty.)

Spread each bread slice with cream cheese. Spread the garlic mixture on top and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Just before serving, run the bread slices under the broiler or bake in a 400-degree oven until the topping is hot and bubbling.

Per serving: 429 calories, 13 gm protein, 25 gm carbohydrates, 30 gm fat, 19 gm saturated fat, 83 mg cholesterol, 515 mg sodium.


(6 servings)

Most garlic bread recipes call for artery-clogging doses of butter. This one will please people who are watching their cholesterol levels; it uses olive oil instead of butter. Two heads may seem like a lot of garlic to use for a single loaf of bread, but roasting reduces the plant's nose-jarring pungency and brings out its sweetness. Crostini are crisp Italian toast points.

1 large or 2 small heads garlic

Approximately 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, to taste

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1 large baguette

Sprigs of fresh flat leaf parsley for garnish

Gently break the heads of garlic into cloves, taking care not to split the papery skin covering each clove. Place the garlic in a roasting pan and bake in a preheated 300-degree oven for 1 hour, or until soft. Let cool. Cut the top off each clove and gently squeeze out the garlic, which will have softened to a sweet paste.

Mash this paste with a fork or in a food processor. Place it in a bowl and beat in 2 to 3 tablespoons oil, salt, pepper, cayenne and Parmesan cheese. The recipe can be prepared ahead to this stage.

Cut the baguette into 1/2-inch slices. Lightly brush each slice on both sides with olive oil. Arrange the bread on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned, turning once.

Spread the garlic mixture on the bread slices. The crostini can be served at room temperature or warmed in the oven. Garnish each with a sprig of parsley before serving.

Per serving: 344 calories, 7 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 392 mg sodium.


(6 servings)

Scallions and fresh herbs lend this garlic bread a stunning green hue. The garlic topping also happens to be delicious on grilled and broiled fish and as a fat for saute'eing shrimp.

1 large baguette

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 to 3 cloves garlic

1/3 cup chopped scallions or chives (or a mixture of both)

1/2 cup very finely chopped parsley

1/2 cup very finely chopped cilantro (or more parsley)

Salt, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, to taste

Thinly slice the baguette on the diagonal. Arrange the slices on a baking sheet. Lightly toast the bread on both sides under a preheated broiler.

Meanwhile, cream the butter. Mince the garlic, scallions, parsley and cilantro and add to the butter. Beat in salt, pepper and cayenne pepper.

Just before serving, spread the garlic-herb butter on the bread slices. Place under the broiler and cook until the butter is melted and bubbly and the bread slices are nicely browned.

Per serving: 380 calories, 6 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 27 gm fat, 15 gm saturated fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 321 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.