The history of antipasti and a recipe for an antipasto platter in imitation of the flag of Italy


Got a great chuckle one day when a patron at a supermarket deli counter said to the clerk, “Man, I need to go on a diet. Give me some of that anti-pasta,” the “anti” said as in “anti-aging.”

Given our American culinary history, it was an understandable booboo on the Italian word “antipasto,” which translates verbatim as “before the meal” — and, to clarify, means neither “before the pasta” nor, certainly, “opposed to it.”

We call nibbles “nibbles” and snacks “snacks” and about anything more formal “appetizers,” that latter word giving a good clue to what are, in truth, antipasti (the plural of antipasto). They arouse or stimulate the appetite, especially for what’s to come, the “pasto,” or main meal.

Other cultures offer similar pre-meal invigorants. The French call their antipasto an “hors d’oeuvre” (word for word, “outside the main event”); those in the Levant and Greece have a long tradition of “mezze”; and no Russian meal is without its prefigurement of “zakuski.”

Some suggest that Spanish tapas or Venetian cicchetti are antipasti, but I disagree (mildly) because these small plates are served much less frequently in homes or restaurants than at bars or taverns, and are generally eaten while standing up. They’re culinary quickies, sometimes in place of a meal itself.

However, even in Italy itself which, let’s be honest, has not only given the name “antipasti” to the West but also defined most of its ways and means, the term was not much in use until the late 1800s. You won’t find many older Italian cookbooks calling what we call foods such as bruschetta, crostini, sliced meats or salted fish and the like “antipasti.”

They might call them — or foods like them, such as a cup of soup or a few oysters — “principii” (first things) or even, in English translation, “appetizers,” but the popularity of the words “antipasto” and “antipasti” are more modern than ancient.

In 1891, in the greatest Italian cookbook of its time, “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” author Pellegrino Artusi states that the proper place or timing of foods such as “oysters, cured meats … or seafood such as anchovies or sardines” was, in fact, “after the pasta course.” He said this because he was a Tuscan where antipasti, in a twist on the word, were “post-pasta,” eaten after the rice or pasta course but before the meat or fish course.

What’s the point of all this eating etymology anyway? Haven’t cultures always munched the wee bits in order to stimulate their larger appetites? No, they haven’t.

That’s because of what true antipasti are, characterized by an abundance of salt (such as in cheeses, pickles, brined olives), souring agents such as vinegars or citrus juices (pickles again, marinated vegetables) and both smoked fish and meat and cured meats, a.k.a. dried sausages.

Looked at over a very long history, these foods are relatively new to the human palate, surprisingly so.

The elements of salt, acid and smoke are preservatives. Peoples of the West did not salt, hang for curing, acidulate, smoke in order to cure, pickle or perform other preserving acts on food until beginning to do so some 3,000 years ago, mostly by desiccating foods such as fruits of their potentially spoiling moisture.


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