Just like pasta, risotto and pizza, one of the most characteristic features of Italian cuisine is the appetizer dish known as antipasto. Traditionally served at the beginning of a meal, antipasti can take various forms and consist of all kinds of different foods, depending on the region of Italy. However, what all antipasti have in common is that they are meant to engage and stimulate all five senses.
What is Antipasto?
First off, the word antipasto is singular, and the plural is antipasti. So for a single dish, say, a small bowl of olives, which is quite typical, we'd call it an "antipasto," whereas we would refer to a platter of several different items as "antipasti." And the plural version, antipasti, is how we refer to it generally.
In terms of the meaning, the word is derived from Latin, where ante means "before" and pastus means "meal." Thus, antipasti is the simply the course that comes before the main meal.
Because it comes at the start of the meal, antipasti are meant to whet the appetite (including visually) rather than satisfy it. Thus it is principally made up of small bites and small portions. Traditionally antipasti are presented so-called "family-style," meaning that the various ingredients are served on a main platter or board, from which everyone at the table will serve themselves (although at restaurants it is sometimes served in individual portions).
Moreover, because antipasti consists of just a few bites, those bites pack intense flavor, as well as comprising contrasting and complementary colors, flavors and textures. It's made up of regional specialties, and, to a lesser extent, what's in season.
Typical ingredients include olives, mushrooms, peppers, cured meats, cheeses, and vegetables which can be served raw, grilled or roasted, or pickled. And in most cases (but not all), antipasti are served at room temperature. This is why so many of its ingredients are traditionally cured, pickled or otherwise preserved. This is also why seasonality is not necessarily the hallmark of antipasti.
And in case it sounds like an antipasto dish needs to be elaborate and complex, this is definitely not the case. An antipasto can be as simple as a small bowl of seasoned nuts or a few thin slices of prosciutto ham. A typical spread might include a cured meat, a cheese, along with a vegetable, perhaps served with some sort of bread—from a wood-fired loaf to a narrower baguette, or even thin breadsticks called grissini.
Regional Antipasto Variations
Italy has as many as 20 distinct regions, which is extraordinary for a country with the approximate area of Arizona, with each one differing by climate, by geography, and by the cultural influences of the countries it borders. Remarkably, while Italy's northern provinces border Switzerland and Austria, the heel of the boot is just a ferry ride from Greece, while Sicily is most proximate to Africa.
Still, for a quick overview of some regional antipasto variations, we can divide Italy, somewhat arbitrarily, into Northern, Central and Southern regions.
Northern Italian Antipasti
Because Northern Italy borders the Alps, antipasi from the north will often feature Italian Alpine cheeses such as Asiago, fontina, and taleggio. Gorgonzola likewise cheese hails from the northern Italian town that gives it its name.
As for cured meats, mortadella is a northern Italian sausage with its origins in the town of Bologna, and, indeed, it resembles the familiar lunchmeat of that name. Parma, also in the north, is where the famed cured hams known as Prosciutto di Parma originate. Bresaola, an aged, air-dried salted beef, is another specialty of the Alpine region of Lombardy.
Fennel, basil pesto, figs, olives, cannellini beans, tuna, balsamic onions and fried polenta also feature in antipasti plates in northern Italy.
Central Italian Antipasti
One of the characteristic components of central Italian antipasti is the crostini. The words crostini and bruschetta are sometimes used interchangeably, but crostini is made from thin slices of narrow baguette-style breads, while bruschetta is made from wider loaves. In both cases, the slices are toasted and served with some sort of topping, such as pate or tapenade.
Other central Italian ingredients include tomatoes, mozzarella, smoked salmon, eggplant, and salami.
Southern Italian Antipasti
Southern Italy is the home of the caprese salad, made from slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes, and leaves of sweet basil—a combination whose colors make up the red, white and green of the Italian flag. Usually topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and occasionally featuring olives and arugula, the caprese salad can be arranged on a plate or served on skewers, and in either form it is a common fixture on antipasti platters prepared in the south.
Other southern ingredients include seafood like anchovies, clams, mussels and shrimp, along with Romano cheese, roasted peppers, artichokes, capers, even raisins.