Growing up, my culinary experience was influenced by Southern Italian cooking, via my mom’s side. She was raised by her Italian immigrant grandparents who hailed from the southern region of Calabria. Their modest home in inner-city Philadelphia had an impressively large garden in the back yard, where familiar fruits and vegetables from the old country were harvested nearly year-round: onions, garlic, tomatoes, grapes, peppers, greens, eggplant, string beans, spices and fresh herbs. One of my earliest memories was sitting at my great-grandmother’s kitchen table, pressing together the edges of her homemade ravioli with a key, while her tomato gravy simmered on the stove.
As I grew older and saw more of the world (including some of Italy), I noticed that in addition to importing their wonderful cuisine, Italian-Americans also brought to their new country a strange, hierarchical view of other Italian-Americans. This classification system corresponds to regions in the old country: the farther to the South your ancestral hometown lies, the lower the class your family is perceived to inhabit. In socio-economic terms it sort of makes sense: up until the mid 20th century Southern Italy was one of the poorest regions in Europe, inhabited mainly by impoverished, olive-farming peasants (which included my great-grandparents). This was in distinct contrast to the lifestyle and standards of living enjoyed in the bustling, wealthy, industrialized cities of Rome and Milan to the North. And it would be quite an understatement to say the architecture and art scene in Calabria did not rival the treasures of Venice.
There is also an ugly racial aspect to this hierarchy: as a legacy of various Islamic invasions a thousand years ago, native Southern Italians tend to be dark-skinned, black-haired and dark-eyed, unlike their cousins to the North, who get fairer, blonder and bluer-eyed the further up the boot one travels, until they are virtually indistinguishable from their Swiss and Austrian neighbors across Italy’s Northern border. My Calabrian grandmother always shunned the sun: with her deep brown eyes, wavy black hair and dark brown skin, she was mortified by the thought that she might be mistaken for someone of more recent African ancestry. (And unfortunately, that was not exactly the way she would have phrased it.)
Another thing I realized as time went on was that “traditional Italian food” was hardly uniform. Much like Spanish dishes, where local ingredients and unique traditions have a tremendous impact on cuisine, Italian fare also varies widely from region to region. A dish that goes by the same name in Pisa and Palermo can be fundamentally, radically different. Which brings me to the subject of this post: Antipasto.
The Italian word means “before the meal,” but until relatively recently to me it just meant “salad.” Before a family get-together, one or the other of my relatives (always female) would be tasked with providing the “annie-pahst,” which would consist of a large bowl filled with chopped iceberg lettuce and topped with sliced olives, peppers, tomatoes, strips of meats like salami and capicola (“gah-bah-gool”) and cheeses such as provolone or mozzarella (“mootsa-del”). The whole platter would be drizzled with olive oil and red wine vinegar — and as a kid, all I could say was “Ew.” I would eventually come to appreciate all of these foods and flavors; and yet, whenever I’d see Antipasto on the menu at an Italian restaurant, I couldn’t help but flash back to Aunt Annamaria’s soggy iceberg lettuce and canned olives. I’d order anything else instead.
That all changed after I moved to New York. (Doesn’t everything?) Even if you’re struggling financially, one of the amazing things you quickly discover is that there are countless, inexpensive neighborhood eateries and take-out shops serving authentic ethnic foods from places around the globe, including, of course, Italy. At one such establishment, my more sophisticated dining companion ordered the antipasto. Out came a small plate of cut cheese and thinly-sliced meats, along with roasted hot peppers, artichoke hearts, a few marinated olives and a colorful melange of beans. Vinegar and olive oil (infused with rosemary, garlic and pepper) were presented on the side; these were subsequently drizzled onto a bread plate, and used for dipping small pieces of warm Italian bread. And not a single leaf of lettuce, iceberg or otherwise, anywhere.
No disrespect to my Aunt Annamaria, but from then on I was hooked. The portions are small, but antipasto is a feast of flavors, colors and textures. Usually offered as an appetizer, for me, it’s a meal — with a little bread and a glass of red wine. It also makes for a very nice first course to share. Once my mom visited and I took her to a local Italian restaurant. “Oh, look!” she said, “They have annie-pahst!” I explained that it was not what she thought it was, but she should order it anyway. She sighed, and ordered calamari instead.
As Americans are wont to do — for better or for worse — I have since adapted, reinvented, and improvised my way through countless combinations of antipasto as a meal in itself. Endless possible varieties make it easy and fun to put together even at the last minute, and guests enjoy whatever selections they like. It has a lot to recommend it — including, believe it or not, health and nutrition. The portion sizes of meat, dairy, gluten, carbs, salt, saturated fats, or anything else you may be concerned with can be minimized or avoided entirely. You can even do the whole thing vegetarian. (And by focusing on traditional Mediterranean fare, you will naturally omit things like pretzels and chips.)
One last thing. Over the recent holidays, I enjoyed many seasonal and special dishes that are made only at this time of year or for other “special occasions.” But the vast majority of foods were unremarkable and served year-round. They just seemed more special, and I believe this is almost entirely due to the presentation: out come the serving platters, the “nicer” dishes and glassware, the linen napkins, the candles — it all combines to make for a festive atmosphere that appeals to the senses and heightens the pleasures of the food. What might start out as a ho-hum deli platter from the local grocery store becomes an inviting centerpiece surrounded by an abundance of simple, enticing delicacies. I’ve collected a dozen or so inexpensive serving items over the years at thrift shops and discount stores (some for as little as 25 cents), like unique plates and tiny bowls that add color and style to any food spread. My advice boils down to this: use your good stuff, and not just for special occasions. When you do, your simple meal becomes a special occasion.
Here I’ll just show you what I served last night, then give you some additional ideas I’ve seen or tried myself. Your own imagination, preferences, and the contents of your pantry (and your wallet of course…) are your only limitations.
Antipasto for Two*
- 1/2 organic yellow pepper, sliced into strips;
- 2 organic carrots, sliced into sticks;
- generous dollop of hummus (Yorgo’s organic, original flavor).
Miniature blue handpainted bowl: Jerez de la Frontera airport gift shop, 2008, €3.
- Tomato wedges sprinkled with sea salt and cracked black pepper;
- Roasted pepper and Kalamatta olive spread (Rick’s Ragin’ Peppamatta, mild).
Small brown bakeware crock, Housing Works thrift shop, $1.
- Manchego cheese slices. Always great to have on hand: just cut up and serve with some nuts and a bold red wine before any meal.
6″ gold-bordered bread plate, Housing Works thrift shop, set of six: $3.
Meats and cheeses: clockwise from top left: organic roasted turkey, uncured slow cooked ham, cheddar slices, and Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeño (all Applegate Farms); center: sopressata (Dietz & Watson). Meats and cheeses can be served alone, or with a selection of rolls, breads & condiments to make small sandwiches.
13″ glass platter in deep purple: Odd-Job, Lexington Ave. (circa 1997), @ $4.
- Traditional American condiments: hot and mild mustards, mayonnaise. A local restaurant serves a cheese plate with a mild, grainy mustard, toast points and quince. Yum.
BTW, that Colman’s Mustard is my new fave: deliciously livens up other sauces, spreads and dressings with knock-your-socks-off heat. (You have been warned.)
- Raw almonds and roasted cashews (no salt). I set out one or more small dishes of different nuts around the table, or combine them into a mix.
3.5″ white ramekin, Housing Works thrift shop, $1.
You can also (or instead) warm up and slice a fresh baguette for dipping in olive oil, flavored or plain extra-virgin.
Cake plate with dome, Bed Bath & Beyond, $49.99.
- Roasted red peppers, for gorgeous color and tangy flavor. Slice into strips or chunks, or pile up whole. Plate with olives.
- Vino: red Italian wines pair very nicely with antipasti. Just as a guideline, consider the overall boldness and complexity of the flavors you are serving, and go more or less bold and complex with the wine accordingly. For mostly mild flavors try a Chianti, or a light Pinot Noir. If you’ve got a spicy, sharp, and heavily garlic-laden spread (or that Colman’s mustard!), bump it up to a Barolo, or something more akin to a Cabernet.
For a memorable feast, put out a nice table setting. Even if you started out just thinking about using up the odds-&-ends in your pantry or those uninspiring leftovers in the ‘fridge, with just a few supplemental items to add some Mediterranean flavors and variety — and a little thought to presentation — you will have yourself a very special occasion indeed.
Other foods to try:
- roasted eggplant: classic Calabrian fare.
- different breads: explore a local Italian deli or bakery, and sample what they have on offer: olive loaf, rosemary focaccia, sesame semolina bread. (Slice it thin.) Bread sticks are nice, too.
- seafood: virtually anything, including raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, grilled calamari doused with lemon & black pepper, anchovies, chilled salmon, octopus**, baked clams.
- bean salads: there are tons of recipes on the web, or you can buy it prepared at a deli counter (like I do).
- traditional Italian meats: prosciutto, salamis (hot or sweet), pepperoni.
- olives: the varieties in color and flavor are truly extraordinary.
- roasted garlic (also very traditional).
- artichoke hearts.
- hot peppers, whole.
- soups: Minestrone, Italian wedding soup, whatever you like. Set out a tureen that guests can ladle themselves, or serve individual portions in small mugs or bowls.
- green beans, cooked al dente, sauteed with garlic, olive oil and white wine. (Serve hot or cold.)
There are too many possibilities to even remember, much less describe in detail here. But I hope this at least gets you started poking around your cupboards, local shops, and deli counters…and breaking out those nice serving pieces and linens you just put away.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go over to the Coathanger Lobby/Obama Administration thread and kick someone’s ass — yet again.
* A good half of last night’s spread was left over, and is currently in my refrigerator. It will not be there long.
** As a general rule, I do not eat anything smarter than me. This is of course one reason why I do not nosh on the remains of ancient writers or brilliant physicists — and just like them, the octopus is extraordinarily bright. For an animal that lives only briefly, I’d bet on one against any human toddler the same age. And when our cephalopod friends suddenly evolve a long life span and proceed to take over the world, I will be spared. (“I, for one, welcome my new Cephalopod Overlords. Also, just FYI, I hear conservatives taste delicious.”)