Antipasti: Meal, Social Gathering Or Both?
Antipasti are a colorful and delicious way to set the stage for the coming feast—an invitation 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 their gorgeous presentation and entertaining ease, antipasti have become an art all their own.
Like the opening credits for a film, antipasti announce the beginning of something special. 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.
The presentation of antipasti—the colors, the textures, the artful arrangement and the complementary flavor pairings—reminds guests that it is time to unwind and indulge.
The Appetizer Course
In English, we call these appetizers. For the French, they are the hors d’oeuvre. They are called antipasti in Italian, where they can be served hot or cold, cooked or raw. Antipasti (plural form) can be served on individual plates, in bite-sized pieces on a plate that is passed around the table or presented as an elegant centerpiece for grazing.
Antipasto in Italy
There are many misconceptions about antipasti, beginning with the word itself. Americans often believe antipasto refers to a dish served before a pasta course. While this may be the case at times, 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 others.
In Italy, antipasti isn’t commonplace in the home. These beautifully prepared, decorously arranged plates of cured meats, specialty cheeses, pickled vegetables, olives and bruschetta are reserved for special occasions, such as family reunions, celebrations after religious ceremonies, special gatherings of friends or romantic dinners.
In Italian restaurants, it is common to find antipasti on buffet tables or in refrigerated bars where guests can help themselves. The finer the restaurant the more importance is given to the antipasto course, giving guests an opportunity to taste truly creative, unusual specialties.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.
A good antipasto plate offers an appealing mixture and contrasts of textures, tastes and colors. Olives and antipasti from your local deli’s olive bar are an incredible (and easy) way to upgrade your snacking and serving opportunities. We love olives marinated with herbs, stuffed olives, beautiful Greek Calamata olives, colorful mixes of pickled peppers and veggies (like our giardiniera).
In Italy, the most common antipasto dish is a simple display of cured meats on a plate, known as charcuterie in the U.S. These displays typically include prosciutto crudo di Parma or San Daniele, salame, coppa (capocollo), speck, and mortadella, or other regional, cured meats. They are often arranged on a large platter with various hard cheeses, such as Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then, finished off with a variety of olives, 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
While it is easy to bring together pairings of meats, cheeses and antipasti, we suggest whipping up a little something to add to the presentation of your antipasti offerings. 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 of bite-sized ingredients, like fresh mozzarella balls (Cieligine Mozzarella), 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. Maybe the simplest prepared antipasto, bruschetta consists of tangy tomato, chopped vegetables and herbs. Serve with crispy gourmet toasts for the perfect spread. 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 slices of toasted bread to make an exquisite antipasto.