Here in America, when we think of “Italian appetizers,” things like cheese sticks, calamari, and bruschetta come to mind. Nothing wrong with that, but the end result is pretty run-of-the-mill: something the kitchen can whip up in a hurry to keep you at bay so they can work on the rest of your order.
And while those dishes can indeed be satisfying, there is so much more to the Italian antipasto than what we typically see on restaurant menus.
True is creative and colorful, and involves way more than a plate of fried food with canned marinara dipping sauce (the four words at which every Italian cook should shudder).
It is light and exploding with flavor; the variety of dishes available is limited only by the imagination of those preparing it. What follows are just a few examples of some genuine Italian anti-pasto ingredients you can combine to whatever extent your heart desires.
Poor pigs: born into this world with the perfect meat to fat ratio, and raised by farmers who need both meat and fat.
Over time, those farmers and their families have tinkered with science and nature to produce specialty cured meats like coppa (shoulder), guanciale (jowl), and prosciutto (ham) to great effect.
Every type of cured meat – be it cured in a chamber or hung from a rafter and air-dried – has its own unique flavor and texture. Though some are fatty, they are usually sliced paper thin so they don’t feel heavy… and taste great when wrapped around a piece of fresh melon or fig.
Italian sausage is way more than just sweet, hot, or mild. It is soppressatta, salami, mortadella… the list goes on and on. In fact, sausage making is considered an art, and just about every town you visit has their own version and opinion of how you should make (and eat) sausage.
Real Italian sausage can be dried (or smoked) and served at room temperature, grilled and presented as a main course, or diced and rendered down in a hot pan as the base for a good tomato sauce.
It is fascinating just how versatile Italian sausage is and can be, and as part of antipasti, its sheer meatiness makes for a wonderful contrast of textures.
The list of Italian cheeses reaches beyond 400 different types, so let’s just condense all those down into two: hard and soft.
Hard cheeses like Parmesan and pecorino are often grated over pasta and salads, but shaving them into paper-thin slices offers your antipasto a nutty, slightly crunchy saltiness that does great battle with the richer meats and cured vegetables and fruits.
Softer cheeses (stracchino, buffalo mozzarella, and burrata) are milder in flavor and sliced thicker. Given the robustness of the other items on the plate, these are usually best for texture… and pressed over some warm, crusty bread.
And this is only the beginning.
To a plate of cured Italian meats, sausages, and cheeses, you can add things like pickled sweet Italian peppers, a good olive tapenade, and some smoked fish or grilled whole sardines.
Just drizzle with a bit of quality olive oil and serve with crusty bread, and you’ll be amazed at how many wonderful flavors your mouth can handle.
Once you use just a little imagination, you’ll never crave a fried macaroni ball again.