Antipasto – A Primer on the Italian Starters Course


The word ‘antipasto’ (plural, ‘antipasti’) comes from anti- (before) and pasto (meal) and has absolutely nothing to do with pasta. An antipasto is the Italian equivalent of the starters course, but it also defines each individual appetizer (or hors d’oeuvre) that this course is made of. For instance, an Italian would say: “We started the meal with an antipasto [course]”, as well as: “They served us three types of antipasti [dishes]”.

It is common for any formal meals, home cooked as well as in restaurants, to begin with antipasto and then continue with first course (pasta or rice), second course (meat or fish), cheese, dessert, fruit, coffee, and digestive liquor. Everyday meals, instead, generally only include first course, second course, and optional coffee. Occasionally, however, an informal antipasto can be a nice addition to every meal.

Antipasti are often served in small portions meant for sharing; some restaurants even offer a buffet of antipasti, allowing the diners to mix and match their favorite items. More informal establishments, such as pizzerie and trattorie, are instead more likely to feature only a limited number of individual antipasti platters.

Legend for the feature image.
Legend for the feature image.

The most common antipasti are cold dishes, but there are a few regional specialties that are served warm or hot, all of which are almost completely unknown in North America. Some warm appetizers are:

  • ‘Olive all’Ascolana’ (7). A particular type of green olives, stuffed with a meat paste, then breaded and deep-fried in olive oil (typical product of the Marche region).
  • ‘Gnocchi fritti’ (6). A type of fried bread (see The Mystery of Bread, typical of the Emilia region).
  • ‘Mozzarella in carrozza’. Literally: “mozzarella in the carriage”, breaded and deep fried mozzarella (typical of central Italy).
  • ‘Bagna càuda’. Piedmontese dialect for “warm bath”, a sauce made with anchovies, garlic and oil, used as a dip for raw or cooked vegetables (typical of the Piedmont region).
  • Deep fried, grilled or oven roasted squid. Common all throughout Italy.

Typical cold antipasti include:

  • Cold cuts. E.g.: prosciutto crudo (2) (raw, cured pork – sometimes served with cantaloupe), prosciutto cotto (Italian ham), pancetta (Italian bacon), coppa (1) (called capicollo in southern Italy, also a type of cured pork), salumi (3) (cured sausages – including ‘bologna’ and other kinds of ‘mortadella’), lardo (4) (aromatized, cured pork fat), bresaola (cured lean beef – often served with slivers of Parmigiano, lemon and olive oil).
  • Grilled vegetables. E.g.: thinly sliced eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers.
  • Deli preparations. E.g.: ‘insalata di mare’ (seafood salad, with cooked squid, octopus, mussels and shrimp, marinated in lemon, oil and parsley), ‘insalata russa’ (cooked vegetables, mostly potatoes, peas, and carrots in mayonnaise), marinated anchovies, ‘sarde in saor’ (sardines in an onion marinade, typical of the Veneto region), Sicilian ‘caponata’ (fried eggplant in a tomato, onions, celery, olives and capers stew).
  • Savory Tarts. E.g.: spinach and ricotta ‘tortino’, cut into bite-size chunks.
  • Egg-based preparations. E.g.: cold ‘frittate’ (5) (for instance with roasted zucchini and herbs, with asparagus or with mushrooms) and ‘uova ripiene’ (halved hardboiled eggs where the yolk has been mixed with mayonnaise and canned tuna).
  • ‘Sottaceti’. Pickled vegetables (preserved in vinegar), e.g.: cipolline (small onions in white vinegar), ‘cetriolini’ (baby cucumbers marinated in vinegar, and without any dill!).
  • ‘Sottòli’. Vegetables preserved in olive oil, e.g.: black and green olives, artichokes, mushrooms, mixed vegetables, ‘cipolline borettane’ (a particular type of pearl onions, in a sweet and sour preparation).
  • Cheeses. E.g.: mozzarella (sometimes served in a Caprese salad – with sliced tomatoes and olive oil), provolone or any other fresh and mild cheeses.
  • Breads. E.g.: sliced artisan bread (served without butter!), flatbread (e.g. Sardinian ‘pane carasau’, possibly served with a tapenade of olives or mushrooms), breadsticks (sometimes wrapped in prosciutto slices).
  • Bread-based preparations. E.g.: ‘bruschetta’ (toasted bread with diced fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil) and ‘panzanella’ (a red onion, tomato and cucumber salad, either with chunks of moistened stale bread – as commonly prepared in Tuscany, where it originated -, or served on a toasted bread slice – as typical in all central Italy -).

One particular preparation that can be served as an antipasto as well as a side is a mix of cooked vegetables (e.g.: cauliflowers, carrots, green beans, mushrooms, green peppers), pickled vegetables (e.g.: artichokes, onions, cucumbers), canned tuna, olives and tomato paste. In North America, a modified version of this dish (also containing dill pickles and various vegetable oils), sold under the generic name Antipasto, has become quite popular as a snack – completely obfuscating the original meaning of the word ‘antipasto’. This is why North Americans think of ‘antipasto’ as the Italian, “higher class” alternative to salsa, meant to be enjoyed with crackers, nachos or chips – what a great example of Italian food aberration!