The French omelette and the Italian frittata are just about as different from each other as the French are from the Italians. One is all fluff and show, a bit like a peacock showing its tail. Don't get me wrong: I love a good French omelette-the lightness of the egg as it is fluffed in the pan, the flavour of good country butter and the last-minute touch, a garnish (the most famous being the seventeenth-century treat of carp roe and tuna). A French omelette needs to be consumed toute suite, otherwise it loses its oomph, like when the peacock folds his tail and walks away. The butter congeals on the plate, as does the fat from the lardons, or bacon bits, and, well, you get the idea.
Although the frittata is the omelette's cousin, sometimes it's hard to believe they are related. The Collins Italian-English Dictionary translates omelette directly to frittata, but the differences are vast. They have in common their base ingredient, egg, and that they are both cooked. They also share a role in an aphorism: in both French and Italian, the saying goes ‘you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs' (non si può fare una frittata senza rompere le uova.) The Culinary Institute of America's The New Professional Chef actually classifies them separately and keeps an almost clean distinction between the omelette and the frittata, although it does tag frittataonto the farmhouse omelette.
A frittata can be eaten hot or cold; an omelette cannot. An omelette takes its prestige from the chef's skills in moving the eggs around in the pan to get that light fluffy texture. While some chefs even separate the whites from the yolks to achieve a light omelette, making a frittata involves concentrating on the ingredients the egg holds together.
The friends I entertained for lunch recently are not vegetarians, but because they eat loads of veggies but meat only rarely, I decided to prepare an array of vegetable dishes. I made autumn eggplants, sliced and grilled, then marinated in garlic, parsley, olive oil and chilli; potatoes with rosemary and very good extra virgin olive oil from the Chianti countryside; day-old homemade bread, grilled, rubbed with garlic, and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, wild oregano and olive oil; orange and polenta torte; crusty bread fresh out of the oven; and Urbano's chilli marinated olives.
While shopping for the meal, I found smallish locally grown zucchini with the flower still attached. Their season is coming to an end, so I bought abundantly.
With little thought other than savoring the last of the season's flavors, I chopped the zucchini into rounds, doing the same with the small flowers. I then sautéed them in two pans to keep the heat up, with extra virgin olive oil, fresh mint, garlic, chilli, a few salted capers from Sicily thrown in at the last minute, and Maldon sea salt. As I ended up with so many sautéed zucchinis and still had five eggs remaining from the orange and polenta torte I decided one of the pans would become a frittata.
When the zucchini were cooked, and still hot in the pan I seasoned them, and into a bowl cracked the five eggs, a little sea salt and pepper. I also pounded two or three anchovies and threw them in to give extra flavour and to use less salt. I added a little more olive oil to the pan and threw the eggs in, scrambling them a little until half way through cooking then throwing the whole pan in the oven to set the eggs. I finished by sprinkling shavings of parmesan to melt into the frittata. My guests arrived at this moment, so by the time we had aperitivo, bruschetta and cicoria, the frittata was warm, relaxed and ready.
It was the star of the meal.
An omelette can be sweet or savoury, is cooked on one side only, can be runny on the inside, but is always fluffy.
Frittata uses whatever is in season and showcases it, whether it be zucchini with flowers, the small local carciofi violetti just coming into season, or, in spring, the fine frittata con piselli di primavera. Or Calabrian sausage with red pepper and potato. It can be eaten hot or cold. The Italians eat frittata at room temperature, sliced into wedges. When prepared well, the fuoco is the local produce held together by the egg.
Perhaps it's not a question of omelette vs. frittata, but how to enjoy the difference.
However, one question yet to be resolved is where the word omelette comes from. Some say it is based on the Latin, from the Roman dish ova e mellita, which is a sweet honey omelette dating back to the seventeenth century. Larousse's Gastronomique claims the word comes from the French lamelle, small blade. In any case, it seems that Larousse never had the fortune to enjoy a typical frittata, as the word never appears in his food encyclopaedia.
Shiny and well laid out produce isn't always the best. To get the best local, seasonal veggies, try Maurizo at the Sant'Ambrogio market. For cheeses, I go to Urbano, located in the indoor portion of the same market.