The Romans served many different appetizers to begin their banquets. The most popular items were seasoned eggs and egg-based dishes, vegetables, salad, mushrooms and truffles, assorted shellfish, cheese with herbs, olives, sausages, and even more filling dishes, such as complicated fricassees and casseroles, which today would be considered complete meals in themselves.
Antipasti are the original appetizers, Italy’s answer to French hors d’oeuvres. Traditionally, antipasto, or the plural antipasti, is a combination of varied small foods to be served before the meal. They are meant to stimulate the appetite and taste buds without filling the stomach. Antipasto literally means “before the pasta,” although antipasto is served before most Italian big meals, whether they contain pasta or not. The term antipasto was first used in the sixteenth century and referred to the first course of the meal. It is usually served cold or at room temperature, although you can also have warm antipasti like fried seafood’s.
The antipasti may consist of a number of different foods, depending on the meal, the circumstances and the region of Italy. In a general sense, it could be almost anything served as an appetizer, even fare outside of traditional Italian cuisine, such as pot-stickers or deviled eggs. More often, however, antipasti refers to a number of traditional Italian appetizers, which can be categorized into four different groups: meats, olives, vegetables, and cheeses.
Meats served as antipasti are usually served cold, and may be cold cuts, sausages, or cured meats. Turkey and ham are two examples of cold cuts served as antipasti. Pepperoni or salami may also be served sliced into thin pieces as antipasti. A number of cured meats may also be served, most especially the dry-cured Italian ham known as prosciutto. While these meats are usually served in thin slices, they may also be served in larger pieces, or in the case of salami or pepperoni, still in their casings.
Olives are a staple of Italian cuisine, and so are nearly always found in a traditional antipasti that is not exclusively meat. Kalamata, Nicoise, and Colossole olives are the most common types found in antipasti. These olives may be served on their own, or stuffed with different cheeses, garlic, nuts, prosciutto, or hot peppers.
Vegetables served as antipasti are usually served raw, or perhaps marinated. While any vegetable can in theory be dished up as antipasti, and sometimes one encounters carrots or broccoli, it is more common to find vegetables such as mushrooms, artichokes, or sun-dried tomatoes as the antipasti fare. Often, a number of different types of mushrooms are served together, perhaps each prepared differently; some might be marinated and served cold, others marinated and served hot, and still others grilled before marinating. This allows the diner to experience one food in a number of different styles.
Cheeses are also an important part of the antipasti. Usually, traditional Italian cheeses are served, although in some cases, more exotic cheeses may also be included. The cheeses may be dished on their own, or wrapped in cured meats or stuffed into olives or mushrooms. Although antipasti is not necessarily accompanied by bread, if it includes spreadable cheeses, it will most likely be served with something to spread them on.
Whether the foods are dipped in wine vinegar, olive oil or a sauce, the antipasto offers a diversified introduction to a dinner or luncheon.
(Mouse over the Antipasti tab on the top menu to see recipes).