Antipasti (singular: antipasto) are a beloved part of the Italian culinary tradition. The traditional first course of any formal Italian meal, the term was coined in the sixteenth century and literally means “before the meal.”
Antipasti are often compared to the French hors d’oeuvres. However, unlike the French tradition where the food is usually passed on trays to guests to enjoy with drinks before a meal begins, the antipasti are served once everyone is sitting around the table. The serving of antipasti signifies that the meal has officially started.
The main purpose of the antipasti is to extend the length of the meal. Reflecting the Italian tradition where a meal revolves around both the food and the conversation, the antipasti is the first of many individual courses (including salad, soup, pasta, meat, fruit, and a dessert) that allows a family the time to build strong relationships around the table. Antipasti are usually served as numerous small plates, often cold or room temperature, and are meant to awaken the taste buds without filling your stomach.
The contents of an antipasto dish vary according to the different regions of Italy. Some of the most common offerings include cured meats, a variety of cheeses, bread, olives, and marinated vegetables. In the south of Italy, seafood plates are often included. Classic recipes such as bruschetta (toasted bread topped with marinated tomatoes and herbs) and prosciutto wrapped melon are some favorite antipasti offerings, though antipasti can also be adapted to suit the taste buds of the individuals at the table.
Whether you’re hosting a party or having a simple family dinner, serving antipasti is a signal that you are inviting a warm, friendly, and lingering meal full of conversation. Don’t be afraid to let your creative juices flow in the choosing of your offerings. No matter what combination of antipasti you put on the table, you will be following a long and beloved culinary tradition.