When my son first moved to Italy several years ago, he called me with two observations: you can have too much cheese on a pizza and there's no such thing as garlic bread. I'll defer comment on the first note for now, but allow me to elaborate on the second.
“Italian garlic bread,” as found in American restaurants and grocery store frozen food aisles, indeed does not exist in real Italian cuisine. It is still another Italian-American creation that nobody in Italy would recognize.
Now, there's nothing wrong with garlic bread as Americans know it. I order it in restaurants and have been known to toss a frozen loaf into the old grocery cart when the mood strikes me. But make no mistake, if you want to serve an authentic Italian-style “garlic bread” with your next spaghetti dinner, stay away from the buttery loaves from the freezer case. In fact, stay away from butter altogether.
“Garlic bread” is the American cousin of a classic Italian preparation called bruschetta. The word comes from the Italian bruscare, meaning to roast or toast over coals. First things first; that's pronounced broo-SKAYT-ah if you want to sound like an Italian or broo-SKET-ah if you want to sound like an American trying to sound like an Italian. It is only pronounced broo-SHET-uh if you want to sound completely clueless.
The common American version of “garlic bread” calls for thick slices of crusty bread – Italian or French – to be liberally coated with butter that has been infused with either garlic powder or garlic salt. Sometimes you'll find a little oregano added to up the “Italian” factor. Topping with some combination of Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses to make “cheesy garlic bread” is also a popular option on American menus. The buttery, garlicky bread is then toasted in an oven or broiler until it's lightly golden brown.
Bruschetta also starts with thick slices of crusty bread, but that's about where the resemblance ends. In an Italian kitchen, a very basic bruschetta – the closest equivalent to “garlic bread” – begins by lightly toasting the bread on a grill or a grill pan. (You can use a broiler if need be.) For the next step, Italian cooks peel a garlic clove and cut off an end. Then they rub the cut end of the clove lightly over the surface of the toasted bread to achieve a subtle garlic flavor. The bread is then drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. (Some people drizzle first then toast, others toast first then drizzle. I'm part of the “drizzle first” crowd because I find doing so allows the olive oil to impart a nice golden color as the bread toasts.) Sometimes a very light pinch of coarse salt finishes the process.
Okay, you may ask, so where did the buttery version come from? The answer is fairly simple. Italian immigrant cooks settling in American cities often had to make do with what was at hand. The concept of “making do” is at the heart of many of Italy's regional cuisines. As hard as it is to believe today when olive oil can often be found on corner convenience store shelves, it wasn't always so. In fact, extra-virgin olive oil could only be found in ethnic neighborhood specialty stores as recently as twenty years ago. So immigrant cooks turned to the most available culinary fat in America, butter.
Now, what I've described here is just the bare-bones basis of a bruschetta. From that foundation Italians layer on a variety of toppings, including finely diced tomatoes, savory fresh basil, rich roasted peppers, and paper-thin slices of prosciutto. Various cheeses can also be used to finish a proper bruschetta.
Another question sometimes comes up; what's the difference between bruschetta and crostini? Really, the only difference is the bread. Bruschetta is usually made on rather thick slices of bread cut from a big rustic loaf. Crostini, on the other hand, are “little toasts” and are usually made on thinner slices cut from a baguette or something similar. From that point, whatever you put on them is pretty much the same, excepting only that thicker slices of bread hold up better under heavier toppings.
So next time you're hungry for a little “garlic bread,” bypass the frozen grocery store stuff and make some the true Italian way. You'll be amazed at the difference traditional techniques and fresh ingredients make.