The name antipasto originates from ante pastum, Latin for before the meal (and not before the pasta, so it’s still antipasto even if you’re not having pasta for a first dish). When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that the stuff I noshed on to take the edge off my hunger while waiting for the pasta to boil was antipasto. The Italian fridge and cupboard offer a delightful variety of noshers, and half the pleasure is to see what a little digging will turn up. This pleasure of the tasty tidbit in advance of the meal proper gives the true origin and spirit of antipasto. It’s more a foreword than an introduction, a little something to tease appetite, flirting with it rather than wooing it, and like a flirt, inventive, improvisational, opportunistic.
The sort of antipasto served as a first course at a sit down meal seems to me a machination of the restauranteur and caterer, and when I was a kid that caterer’s first course was what the word antipasto was reserved for. Knowing the half dozen courses our holiday meals at home ran through, I couldn’t imagine what of Nature’s species of pleasure was left to add on. When I was told that you might be served prosciutto on melon, for example, such a miscegenous coupling of luncheon cold-cut and postprandial fruit struck me less as an invention of fancy than a creature of decadence. To this day I think this combination of a wet summery-sweet fruit with a dry winter-cured meat incongruous, more likely to interest a jaded palate than satisfy a seasoned one. For that matter, I think moist mortadella a better match with fresh mozzarella, and at a quarter of the price of prosciutto.
These days, the antipasto we have at home on holidays is usually eaten hanging out in the kitchen or lounging in the living room. It is laid out for new arrivals to dig into as soon as they like, without ceremony. I remember thinking it the height of discourtesy when one Thanksgiving a Gentile in-law who had been delayed two hours by Thanksgiving traffic, upon arriving and finding that we had gotten started on antipasto and champagne, threw a tantrum, thinking it the height of discourtesy in us not to wait for them to start. Apparently she thought her pleasure in an inaugural toast was well worth our being tantalized by the sight of food and bottles untouchable until she should arrive. It reminded me of yet another Thanksgiving when my Gentile host had us keep watch for a half hour over the platter of antipasti I brought, sitting in our midst on the coffee table as we sipped cocktails round about it, before he ventured to sample something and give the rest of us the signal to begin. I felt like I had been hired by a choreographer for a pièce du scene. Such restraints of formality are alien to the Italian way. Italian customs aim to stimulate and gratify your appetites, not restrain them. The idea is to enhance the joy of eating.
Truth is, speaking culinarily (for how else are we to speak about food?), what tastes good about those roasted almonds is their roasted fat, not their carbs or proteins—although those crisped carbs surely do our fat good delivery service—but it’s that roasted almond-fat that’s rousing your appetite, not to mention the olive oil you toss them in before roasting them in a 400 degree oven, flipping every 5 minutes for 10 to 15 (I used to have a toaster oven that would do them perfectly on the toast function without flipping), until they brown, and crack, and pop, and whistle, and anoint the kitchen air with their fatty perfume, at which point, pour them out onto a wooden cutting board, sprinkle liberally with coarse kosher salt, and allow them to cool to crunchy.
[Maybe it’s not so minor a point that almonds are seeds and not nuts, since I find I don’t like most nuts as antipasto. Nuts are the stuff of gentile cocktail hour, meant to induce thirst rather than rouse appetite, and to preclude having to assemble foods, never mind cook them. As for chips and pretzels, I use them for chugging beer.]
It’s unpleasant to see antipasti compartmentalized into separate little dishes, each with its own little Victorian serving utensil. Antipasto appeals to the animal urge to snatch and gulp before the next animal over knows what he’s missed. One civilizes this snatching impulse by using the tips of thumb and pointer finger, and optionally also middle finger, but with all unused fingers neatly folded in, to gently pluck and tuck (rather than snatch and gulp) bite-sized tidbits. I’m giving this overdetermined protocol in hopes of your not asking me where the serving spoon is to transfer your few almonds and olives to your little plate. Take the hint—it’s finger food. So what if your finger tips get olive oil on them? If you don’t like to lick them, then wipe them on your napkin. Let’s all be sure not to touch anyone else’s nuts and olives when plucking our own, and we’ll all be fine.
Where was I? Oh yes, olives. The other great thing about olives is the way they set off their unctuous fat with tartness or bitterness that makes you pucker, smack, or curl your tongue. They limber you up for dinner. Italian-pickled vegetables do the same. There’s an Italian way of pickling where you boil the vegetable in water and vinegar, then dry it out and season it, before jarring it under olive oil. Isn’t’ that a much better idea than storing your pickled vegetables in brine? (If you can’t see that for yourself, I can’t explain it to you.) The Italian name for things pickled this way is sott’olio.
When I want to expand on the tangy fat of my olives, I go for vegetables sott’olio. If my guests are lucky, I’ll have on hand some of my mother’s eggplant sott’olio. In summer, she’ll get a bushel of eggplant, peel it, and cut it up into rectangular strips, which she layers in a pot, salting each layer; the salt draws out their liquid, in which she leaves them to cure overnight. Next morning, she wrings them dry, and then puts them in a colander under a weight to dry out some more. All this, believe it or not, is to prepare them for boiling! and then more drying! She boils the cured and dried eggplant slices in a pot of 1 part white vinegar and 3 parts salted water, until still quite al dente. Then she drains and dries them out in a colander under a weight again (although I bet spinning them in a salad spinner would do the trick), and when they’re nice and dry, she lays them out and seasons them with light sprinklings of salt and oregano, a half garlic clove here and there, and a general drizzling of olive oil. Then she presses them into a jar, tucking in a single whole hot red pepper as well, and then covers completely with olive oil. The olive oil keeps the air out, and with it mold and bacteria. It lasts for months this way (although you must be careful to use a clean utensil to take servings out, to cover completely with olive oil each time you do, and never to mix leftovers back into the jar).
My mother does the same pickling with hot red cherry peppers. After boiling them in water and vinegar, she removes some of the seeds from each with a gloved hand, and then stuffs each with the 4C brand of seasoned bread crumbs, enriched with finely chopped garlic and parsley, and grated Pecorino Romano. These labor-intensive stuffed cherry peppers go fast with Gentile foodies, so I’ve learned not to offer more than one a piece on any given antipasto platter, lest they finish my jar in a single sitting.
We also do a light pickling of sun dried tomatoes, boiling them briefly in water and just a little vinegar, until softened but still al dente, then drain, dry, and season with oregano and some halved garlic cloves, to be stored under olive oil, ready at hand for antipasto or cooking.
If you're inspired by summer's bounty, you can roast a trio of peppers, eggplant, and onions, whole, in a 400 degree oven, until shriveled and fork-tender, then peel, section, and trim each, and dress this trio in the same way as the sweet peppers above above. I'd probably never go to this much trouble for an antipasto platter especially, but I might have leftovers from an earlier contorno and would grace my platter with the windfall.
If you want tanginess with your toastiness, then dry roast thinly cut slices of eggplant or zucchini, whether on the outdoor grill or stove top ridged pan. The char-striped slices will look unappetizingly dried out and shriveled until you dress them with a drenching of olive oil, and even sprinklings all over of both wine vinegar and lemon; chopped basil and parsely both; a shower of salt and dashes of oregano; and a goodly portion of very finely chopped garlic. Fold over and over to mingle and marry. Your nose'll know when the aromatic union is consummated.
However, I must confess that, whereas my own people temperately leave off with drinking wine after the main dish, in the land of my exile I have adopted at dinner parties the Frankish custom of a cheese plate after the salad and before/with fruit, not only to gratify the conceits of my Gentile foody-favs, but also to gratify my own appetite for even more and bigger red wines.
In addition to or even instead of cheese, I’ll use not-too-skinny slices of dried sausage on an antipasto platter; if I don’t have the real stuff from Bari or Pastosa in Brooklyn, Trader Joe’s Volpe or Pinot Grigio varieties please well enough.
To further beef up an antipasto platter, I’ll use sliced cold cuts, such as mortadella, sopressata, capiccola, prosciutto, or bresaola, folding them into cones or kerchiefs, layering them along the edge of the platter. My personal favorite is mortadella (with pistachios), but the puerile sensitivity of some Gentile palates finds its flavor too strong (although one can find avid converts among you); prosciutto of course always impresses, but given it’s exorbitant price, I won’t buy it unless I see that I’m getting nice big fresh slices from the middle of the ham, and sliced thin by someone who knows the difference between not-thin-enough and too thin. Good pâté also impresses, and given its convenience, is not to be eschewed; I find that lightly toasting rounds of fresh baguette for it makes all the difference, however, as does the accoutrement of good cornichons.
An egg thus transfigured doesn’t taste like a mere egg. But you can even transform a mere egg (i.e., a hard-boiled one) into antipasto by drizzling olive oil all over it, to the point of dripping—I say it again, it’s all about the fat—along with squirts of vinegar and/or lemon juice, and sprinklings of salt, pepper, and oregano—to accent the fat. People will sop up the dressing with bread after the egg is long gone. It’s because of the fat.
Heat oil up on medium heat, and scoop a tablespoon of battered fish babies into the oil, which should sizzle in a friendly and not angry way. Fry friendly, until gilding first appears at the edges, then turn them over to a golden face, and finish frying the other side to golden as well. (Do only one at first, and taste; if need be, add more grated cheese to the batter.) Remove the fritters with a slotted spoon to paper towels, and salt lightly on both sides, as you would fries. Serve the fritters as soon as they cease to be too hot to eat; don’t bother trying to stop casual snatchers-by.
If you get them right, they will be snatched up at table in moments. Such snatching means you got your antipasto right.
Sparkling wine has become our family favorite with antipasto, perhaps under the influence of my brother’s wine-in-laws. I wish I could say we prefer Prosecco, but truth is, we drink French champagne and Spanish cava at least as often. What we never do is make anyone drink what they don’t like. There’s no ceremony of opening bottles and rationing out portions to rows of glasses, with a communal toast and comments of appraisal. We try to make sure there’s some bottle or other open to suit every palate present—something sweet for the aunts, bubbly for the mainstream, a red for my brother, a beer for my brother-in-law—something to make everyone happy—no script, no protocol, no choreography. Let pleasure guide each.