Antipasti: Meal, Social Gathering or Both?


Antipasti, the foods offered before the meal itself begins, are a colorful, delicious way to set the stage for the coming feast and to invite your friends and family to the table. In Italian tradition, antipasti are selected for color, flavor, texture and how well they complement both each other and the meal to come. With a role in home entertaining and the dining scene, antipasti has become a full-blown social event.

Like the opening credits for a film, the appearance of the antipasto announces to the crowd that something special is about to begin. Usually just the sight of a beautifully prepared antipasto is enough to change the entire mood of a gathering, luring each guest to the table for a shared meal among friends or family. As in a movie theatre, when the credits start to roll, you are pulled out from the knots and tangles of your life and into the magic of the cinema, so the presentation of the antipasto coaxes each guest to suspend the cares and worries of their day, and immerse themselves in the gifts about to be set before them.

The presentation of antipasti—the colors, the artful composition, the care taken in its preparation—reminds guests that it is a time for pleasure, relaxation and indulgence.

In English, we call it the appetizer course.

For the French, it is the hors d’oeuvre. In Italy, it’s called the antipasto. It can be hot or cold, cooked or raw. Antipasti (plural form) can be served on individual plates, each one artfully designed; or, in bite-size pieces on a plate that is passed around the table; or, presented as an elegant centerpiece from which everyone is served. For the cook, it can be a chance to embellish, dazzle, and have some fun. The antipasto course can be the host’s culinary valentine, a sumptuous invitation to the feast that is to follow.

In Italy

In the US, there are many misconceptions about antipasti, beginning with the meaning of the word itself. Americans often believe antipasto means a dish served before a pasta course. Though, in fact, this may sometimes be the case, it isn’t the real meaning of the term. Literally, the word “antipasto” is derived from the Latin root “anti” meaning “before” and “pastus,” which means “meal.” Thus, the antipasto course simply refers to the dish that precedes all the others to come.

Also, contrary to popular belief in the US, it is not common practice in Italy to have an antipasto at home. In a busy Italian family, a typical pre-dinner scenario is not so different from what goes on in an American household: kids and working parents come home hungry, and while waiting for lunch or dinner to be ready, they open the refrigerator and gobble a couple of slices of salami, prosciutto or cheese—in the informal, relaxed way we all are familiar with, without ceremony or concern about proper etiquette. In Italy, the beautifully prepared, decorously arranged plates of sliced, cured meats, vegetables, fish and patés that Americans usually associate with antipasti are reserved for special occasions, such as family reunions, celebrations after religious ceremonies, special gatherings of friends, or romantic dinners.

In Italy, most restaurants offer a range of antipasti. Some are displayed on buffet tables or in refrigerated bars, from which guests can help themselves, or else make their request known to the waiter, who then prepares the plates and brings them to the table. In the finer restaurants, great importance is given to the antipasto course, giving guests an opportunity to taste truly creative, unusual specialties, gorgeously presented.

Traditional Italian Entertaining

In Milan, the enjoyment of an aperitif with some antipasti is a sort of institution. The word “aperitif” derives from the Latin verb “aperire,” meaning “to open,” and quite simply, an aperitif is meant to open the appetite with a drink. Traditionally in Milan, drinking a Campari, while nibbling some potato chips, olives and peanuts, an hour or so before a meal, is considered as essential to the good life. For many Milanese, it would be unthinkable to begin a good meal without an aperitif. In the hours preceding Sunday lunch, bars in Milan have always been busy serving Prosecco, Campari, Aperol and various combinations of these with wine, seltzer or juice.

What is known as tradition in places like Milan and other Mediterranean culture, is a large part of the boom in American dining and entertainment currently. Inspired by the lush flavors and colors of both Italian antipasti and Spanish tapas, the concept of “small plates” has caught on in the U.S.‚—giving lovers of Mediterranean goodness a reason to expand on their traditional idea of entertainment offerings and incorporate the fresh, bold flavors of Olives & Antipasti into their get-togethers.

Pairings that Complement

“Location, location, location” may be the motto of the real estate world, but in the realm of antipasti, it is “presentation, presentation, presentation.” Color and design are particularly important considerations for this course because together they open the senses and awaken the palate for the meal that is to follow. An antipasto should whet the appetite—stuzzicare l’appetito—without being too big or too filling. Also, in choosing what antipasto to serve, it is important to keep in mind not only what tastes complement each other on the plate, but also what foods work well with the courses that are to follow.

Provide an appealing mixture and contrasts of textures, tastes and colors. For instance, the smooth texture and neutral colors of a patè di tonno (tuna pate) is beautifully contrasted with the bright colors of parsley, lemon slices and olives. Indeed, olives offer a fantastic array of color and taste to enhance all kinds of cold antipasti platters: olives marinated with herbs, stuffed olives with a nutty almond or hot spicy filling, or dark purple calamata olives all add their own unique flavor and color.

In Italy, the most common antipasto dish is a simple display of cured meats on a plate, such as prosciutto crudo di Parma or San Daniele, salame, coppa (capocollo), speck, and mortadella, or other regional, cured meats. These meats can be arranged on a large platter with various hard cheeses, such as Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano and garnished with a variety of olives, preserved peppers, artichokes, cipolline onions and sun-dried tomatoes. Garnish with a few springs of parsley or dill for an elegant presentation.

Prepare a Little Something

For the warmer seasons, Insalata Caprese is a particularly refreshing antipasto, consisting of mozzarella and tomato, in alternating slices, topped with fresh basil leaves, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper. Alternatively, you can serve individual skewers each comprised of a mozzarella ball, a fresh basil leaf and a small cherry tomato, seasoned as above.

Bruschetta is a great way to display brilliant colors and flavors atop toasted bread or crisps. It is perhaps the simplest antipasto to prepare. Prepared bruschettas of chopped olives, vegetables and herbs make an excellent before-meal offering; or layer your favorite Mediterranean flavors to present. For example, top slices of toasted Italian loaf with roasted peppers, artichokes, or chopped olives, your favorite cured meat and specialty cheese—or simply fresh tomatoes and basil. If desired, anchovies and capers can be added and a sprinkle of fresh chopped herbs.

Another very simple topping for bruschetta can be made from cannellini beans, drained and then sautéed (and lightly mashed) in olive oil with a bit of garlic and a couple of fresh, thinly sliced, sage leaves. Spread over toasted bread, this makes an exquisite antipasto.