The Foodie


Antipasto: What to Serve Before the Pasta

June 24, 2010
by Jen O'Neill
Tempt your taste buds and prepare your stomach for the big meal to follow with a traditional Italian dish: antipasto. With its lively combination of tastes, both savory and sweet, antipasto closely resembles other popular hors d’oeuvres, but brings a distinctly Italian flair and aesthetic. Originating in the 16th century, antipasto literally means “before the pasta,” and is the perfect prelude to either a casual or an elegant meal.

The Cure: Italian Meats

Classic antipasto plates present a hodgepodge of cold cuts. Rustico Cooking explains that meats were traditionally cured after hunting to help preserve them. "Salumi," as cured meats are called in Italian, can be made by air drying, salting or smoking meat. Popular cured meats include salami, pepperoni, sausage, prosciutto, capocollo, salsicca, lardo and pancetta, and are usually seasoned with garlic, herbs and other spices. In Italy you can find these delicacies at at salumeria. In the United States you can find cured meats at specialty butcher shops and gourmet food stores, as well as online.

Each antipasto plate will be different depending on who is serving it and what time of year you are enjoying the meal. Mietta's shares some examples of family favorites and points out that in addition to cured meats, many antipasto plates include eggs (hard boiled or made into a sort of quiche) and seafood such as sardines, tuna, or anchovies.

Olives for Antipasto

Olives in the antipasto spread go far beyond ordinary canned olives; a medley of varieties with distinct characteristics—hard, fruity, crisp, soft, nutty and oily—enliven the plate. The world of olives is rich and the variations are extensive, depending on which region they come from, what time of the year they are picked and how they are cured (usually using salt, lye or brine). 

Olives are native to the Mediterranean region, and their flavor reflects when they were picked and cured. Green olives are picked when they are young and have an intense, pungent flavor, whereas black olives are more mature, with a softer flavor and texture. Whole Foods explains some of the differences in flavor among popular varieties of olives and the methods used to cure olives. Olives must be cured before being eaten to enrich and mellow their flavor because of their natural bitterness. For a longer list of olive varieties visit the Cook's Thesaurus.

Antipasto Breads and Cheeses

A wide selection of cheeses can be found on an antipasto plate and the key is to have a combination of types encompassing both hard and soft consistencies, and diverse flavors—nutty, mild, buttery and robust. findingDulcinea can introdue you to the world of artisanal cheeses to help complement your antipasto plate. If you want Italian cheese for your antipasto plate, Life in Italy can introduce you to some of the famous types of Italian cheese. Semi-soft cheeses, such as the smoky tang of Provolone, combined with the rich and pungent bite of Taleggio, creates an enjoyable contrast. The soft, springy texture of fresh Mozzarella is classic fare, along with the crumbly, salty zing of Gorgonzola. Members of the “firm cheese family,” including Parmigiano-Reggiano and Asiago, are perfect for shaving into stylish and decorative curls.

And what would go better with your antipasto cheeses than delicious bread? In Italian, “crostini” means little toasts made from thinly sliced bread. Usually, artisan breads are grilled or baked until they become crispy. Olive oil acts as the base for the toppings on crostini toasts and they are decorated with marinated red peppers, tomatoes, pesto capers, olive paste or almost any spread suited for a bite-sized toast. Bruschetta, Canapes and Crostini can all be a part of your antipast plate, recipes for these can be found at What's Cooking America.

Putting It Together

An antipasto wouldn’t be complete without fresh fruits and vegetables; mushrooms, red peppers, artichokes and marinated capers or barbequed vegetables drizzled in vinaigrette round off the array of flavors. The Washington Times has an antipasto recipe that utilizes the colorful selection of cauliflower available. Crisp fruits, such as sliced apples, pears and grapes, plain or drizzled in honey, can be scattered around the plate as well.

Once you've assembled your antipasto components, there are multiple ways to stage this collection of delicious edibles. They can be arranged in separate plates or bowls, or all on a large plate so there is a feeling of abundance. To keep it simple, you can toss all of the components together in a salad. The main thing to remember is that with antipasto, almost anything goes. Generally, antipasto is served as the hors d’oeuvre during a formal seated gathering. But casual parties mean plates are passed while everyone is standing around—a great way to ignite conversation, a mainstay of the Italian meal.

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