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!

Eating Vegetarian

Italian cuisine, like many cuisines of the Mediterranean, is considered “vegetarian-friendly” because it features plenty of meatless dishes. Since not everybody has the same definition of “vegetarian,” let’s first clarify the terminology. By vegetarian dish, I mean a dish where no meat or fish in any form was ever used (so, no shrimp, no chicken broth, no anchovy paste), but where animal products may be involved (so, yes milk, eggs, honey). This type of vegetarianism is referred to as lacto-ovo, and it does include cheese made without using animal-derived rennet. For a list of Italian vegetarian cheese (updated to 2018), please download the pdf (courtesy of GreenMe).

North American cuisine tends to be very meat-centered, with the exception of some “vegetarian-heavy” cities (see here for a Top Ten list) where a higher percentage of vegetarians tends to live. In Italy, instead, a number of meatless dishes are fully part of everyone’s diet, and they can also be found in pretty much every restaurant. As a result, there aren’t many dedicated vegetarian restaurants in Italy (but you may find some in the big cities). Another consequence is that imitation meat is not as common as it is in North America – Italian people that become vegetarian generally have plenty of options and don’t need to resort to imitations.

One slight problem with vegetarian food in Italy is that it is sometimes hard to recognize which dishes are in fact vegetarian (and restaurants don’t help by generally not tagging vegetarian dishes on their menus). Italians don’t call a pasta dish “vegetarian,” they simply call it pasta al pomodoro, trenette al pesto, pasta alla Norma. Many pizzas are also vegetarian, but they go under the names of marinara, margherita (mozzarella is generally made without rennet), funghi (mushrooms), olive (olives). There is, however, one type of pizza explicitly called “vegetariana” or “ortolana”, which topped with grilled veggies.

As for the reasons why meat is not the main star of the show as it is in North America, a few theories can be made:

  • North America has a tradition of cattle ranching due to its vast prairies and veggies tend to be seen more as a side dish, something that you have to eat because it’s healthy, but that doesn’t add much to the flavor. There isn’t much tradition around vegetable preparations, and, in some cases, they are even considered more of a garnish that you don’t have to eat.
  • Italy, on the other hand, has a very different geography that makes cattle ranching more challenging. Also, the postwar years were especially tough, and meat hasn’t always been as available to everyone as it is nowadays. As a result, traditional cuisine naturally drifted towards using more produce and more starches.

But there may also be a more practical reason why produce is considered so differently: many of the vegetables grown in southern Europe are simply tastier than their North American counterparts. Possibly because of the favorable climate and soils, vegetables actually taste amazing! Better veggies make for more successful vegetarian dishes and, in an environment where the cuisine is centered on a few clean flavors and a handful of high-quality ingredients, interesting vegetables with complex flavor profiles simply claimed a central role in a number of dishes.

Unfortunately, Italian restaurants in North America tend to feature few, if any, meatless dishes on their menus. This is probably an adaptation of the expectation of the general public. Pizzerias tend to be more reliable in featuring at least a few vegetarian options.