Don’t pity the poor antipasto. According to Lynne Rosetto Kaspar, author of “The Italian Country Table” (Scribner), even though its origins are in peasant cuisine, many of the dishes, developed from leftovers, have now become antipasti, often translated as appetizers. The word “appetizer,” however, barely does justice to the long list of antipasti at restaurants in Italy or to their sumptuous display on plain white platters. Antipasti can be so varied and elaborate that they can be a meal in themselves. The possibilities are endless: tidbits of seafood tossed with olive oil, garlic, and parsley; prosciutto in swirls like petals; a humble bowl of white beans in a warm bath of garlic, olive oil, and parsley; a rainbow of grilled peppers; plates of silvery anchovies; mixed olives in spices; a hunk of parmesan cheese shaved and served over bitter arugula with a drizzling of balsamic vinegar. Regional specialties also are varied. One of northern Italy’s most famous contributions to the antipasto table is mortadella, which has morphed into an American lunch meat named after Bologna, the region’s largest city. A single platter of mortadella, the fully cooked sausage meat studded with squares of fat and special spices, can stand alone as an antipasto.
The magazine La Cucina Italiana (published by Editrice Quadratum SpA, available in English), devotes a section to antipasti. The recipes can be hot or cold, simple or elaborate. A simple one is the half loaf of bread left over from one meal that makes its way to the table the next night as the base of a bruschetta: toasted bread with olive oil and a rub of garlic, a tomato slice, and an anchovy filet.
In many Italian restaurants in America, a single platter with smatterings of the above are nestled atop a bed of greens, like a salad served family-style. In Italy, you may see the antipasti table as you enter and tell the waiter your choices, which are then brought to your table on small plates.
With all the heavy meals and rich foods available during the holiday season, an antipasti buffet can be a welcome alternative. Instead of laying out a large platter, try small plates with multiple offerings for a palette-like effect and a dazzling presentation. Don’t shy away from prepared foods. High-quality canned goods like artichokes, tuna in oil, and beans can help keep cooking to a minimum.
For a dressing, drizzle extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a twist of fresh black pepper on your selections. Let the food speak for itself. Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and a glass of red wine. The recipes here will serve 6-8. Buon apetito.