What is antipasti?
In Italy, antipasti refers to the small bites of food that are served before a meal. Indeed, the word has a rather literal meaning, coming from the Latin roots ante (‘before’) and pastus (‘food’). The antipasti course is the first in a traditional Italian meal structure, which Italians mainly follow at restaurants, dinner parties or other special occasions.
Not to be confused with the somewhat similar-sounding aperitivo – the post-work, pre-dinner ritual of an appetite-awakening drink and a few salty snacks – antipasti instead signifies the beginning of a meal (just like starters in the UK, appetisers in America, or hors d'oeuvres in France). The antipasti course is intended to stimulate the appetite for the courses to come, so typically the Italian approach focuses on quality over quantity.
Antipasti or antipasto?
Both are correct. Antipasto is the singular form, so Italians use this to describe a single dish – like a bowl of olives or plate of cured meats – whereas the plural antipasti refers to a platter of different antipasto, as well as being the word you’ll see appear above a list of ‘starters’ on an authentic Italian restaurant menu.
Building an Italian antipasti platter
The key to building a great antipasti board, as with many things Italian, is simplicity. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself to prepare a host of dishes from scratch. Instead, spend a little time working out where to source a variety of quality produce to serve to your guests.
A basic principle we like to follow is to serve antipasti from each of the following four categories: vegetable antipasti, cheeses, cured meats and bread. Within this basic framework you can pick from endless combinations of delicious Italian goods, but we’ve selected some of our favourites to give you a few ideas.
Cured meats – known in Italy as salumi – are a classic component of a traditional antipasti platter. There’s a huge array of Italian cured meats to choose from, but a reliable favourite is prosciutto di parma (parma ham), which is fantastic draped across a slice of bread or wrapped around a breadstick. For something your guests might not have tried before, search out bresaola, a type of salumi made from air-dried, salted beef. And for something a little spicier, try ‘nduja, a fiery, spreadable sausage from the southern region of Calabria that sings when slathered across some fresh bread.
Next, the cheese. Instead of going for a full Italian cheese board, we’d recommend serving a couple of contrasting cheeses in small chunks or portions. In Italy, aged hard cheeses are the most common antipasto, and you can’t go far wrong with some tangy Pecorino Romano or salty Parmigiano Reggiano. For something luxurious, look no further than the decadent richness of burrata, which pairs perfectly with ripe tomatoes, good bread and a generous drizzle of olive oil. For something a little different, seek out Taleggio, a buttery, semi-soft cheese from Lombardy that’s great with seeded crackers, bread and fig chutney.
Antipasti platters are about balance, so don’t forget the vegetable antipasti, which provide much needed colour, freshness and flavour. Known in Italy as sott’aceto, pickled vegetables are a mainstay of any antipasti board, often in the form of roasted sweet peppers, sun-dried tomatoes or artichoke hearts. A mix of pickled vegetables known as giardiniera is also common throughout Italy, so see if you can source a jar, or make your own. Last but not least are the olives, which are a must. Try to avoid olives that come in a jar or a tin and instead pick fresh ones from your local delicatessen (or the deli counter at the supermarket).
The key when choosing what bread to serve with your antipasti is not to go overboard. After all, the antipasti course is meant to whet the appetite for the courses to follow, not fill you up. A good lighter option is piadina, a traditional flatbread from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. You can find piadina in plenty of supermarkets now, but they’re also deceptively simple to make. If you’re looking for something a little more substantial, then focaccia and ciabatta are both good options (whether homemade or bought), just make sure you’re not too generous with the slices.
How should I present my antipasti?
There is no ‘right’ way to serve antipasti. However, there’s no harm in artfully arranging your selection on either a large wooden or stone board, or across a few smaller boards or plates. If you’re keen for people to mingle before you serve dinner, placing smaller plates containing different types of antipasto around the room will help encourage people to circulate (leave some napkins and cocktail sticks near each antipasto station so things don’t get too messy).
What drinks should I serve with my antipasti?
The aperitivo tradition in Italy means that often small portions of food, like the antipasti in question here, are served alongside cocktails in trendy bars. You could emulate this at your own dinner party by serving traditional Italian cocktails – like the Negroni Sbagliato or the Peach Bellini – to your guests as they arrive. But if this isn’t quite your cup of tea, don’t panic. Popping open a bottle of chilled Prosecco will kickstart your party in authentic Italian style, and your guests can tuck into the array of antipasti with a glass of fizz in hand.
Our favourite antipasti recipes
While part of the joy of antipasti is the ease with which you can pull together a platter of different meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables and breads, there’s definitely something to be said for whipping up one carefully chosen dish from scratch. Here’s three classic antipasti recipes to try:
A single bite of freshly prepared bruschetta is enough to transport anyone to the sun-kissed regions of the Italian south. What’s more, bruschetta are an easy make-ahead recipe – simply prepare the fresh tomato topping ahead of time and refrigerate. Then, when your guests arrive, toast your ciabatta, rub with garlic, top with the tomatoes and finish with a drizzle of really good olive oil.
Sure, Italian-style breadsticks are available everywhere these days, but there’s nothing like the smell (and taste) of freshly-baked grissini. Make our surprisingly easy grissini, then serve them as a lighter alternative to bread at your next dinner party, ready to be wrapped in wafer-thin slices of prosciutto di parma.
With vibrant green basil, fresh white mozzarella and bright red tomatoes, the Caprese is a classic for a reason. Fresh, light and surprisingly satisfying, it’s an easy antipasto to throw together for any occasion – and makes for a reliable crowd-pleaser. With only a few components, try to use the best ingredients you can lay your hands on.