To many Americans, pasta is the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Italian food. While pasta is an important part of the cuisine, there are many other aspects worth exploring — like antipasto. When was the last time you ordered one at an Italian restaurant? It's probably been a while. It's the part of the menu that many people gloss over, and that's too bad because there are many interesting possibilities worth exploring.
What is an antipasto anyway? Isn't it just about prosciutto and melon? (An admittedly strange combination of sweet and savory, fruity and meaty, that's not for everyone, but a classic one.) According to The Silver Spoon, considered to be one of the definitive Italian cookbooks, "classic Italian antipasti are based on cold meats, such as cured ham, salumi, bresaola (dried salted beef), coppa" and the like. Mario Batali echoes this sentiment in The Babbo Cookbook, where he writes, "In many regions the only antipasto offered is sliced meats," on a platter called affettati misti.
While this sounds delicious, not everyone has access to high-quality salumi, so we were relieved to find that some leading authorities interpret the definition of antipasto more broadly. Nancy Silverton, chef and partner in what is arguably Los Angeles' best Italian restaurant, Osteria Mozza, writes in her cookbook, "Pasto means 'meal' in Italian, and antipasto is what comes before the meal — or what Americans think of as appetizers." And even The Silver Spoon goes on to say, "Antipasti served with pre-dinner drinks before sitting at the table are completely different" and can include "small, assorted hot and cold morsels that can be picked up with the fingers and finished off in one or two bites." In his The Country Cooking of Italy, Colman Andrews recounts his first time visiting an old country inn on the outskirts of Rome, where he found "marinated cipolline onions, three kinds of meat-and-rice-stuffed vegetables (onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers), lentil salad, butter beans in olive oil, borlotti beans in olive oil," and all manner of delectable things. To him, "[Antipasto] means appetizer, no matter what you're having next."
Antipasti, then, are perfect for summer, a time to enjoy meals outdoors with friends and family. They offer an easy way to feed a crowd and allow for more variety than sticking to a large-dish format when hosting. Often, a meal with a few antipasti to pick from and perhaps one main course of pasta, grilled fish, or meat can be a refreshing change from the usual salad-main-side-dessert format people expect.
Some highlights to whet your appetites — a classic prosciutto and melon with a sweet-sour twist, Prosciutto di Parma with Agrodolce Melon from Walter Pisano, executive chef of Tulio Ristorante in Seattle; a take on salsa maro from cozy neighborhood Italian joint Franny's in Brooklyn, N.Y., which eschews the food processor for the mortar and pestle to give crushed fava beans an interesting texture; and of course, Fried Zucchini Flowers. For more recipes, check out the slideshow.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.