An Italian meal begins with the antipasto. Meant to awaken the palate and stave off initial hunger pangs, it could just be a simple platter of sliced cured meats and a few olives. But often it is more complex, with a few chicken liver crostini or tomato-topped bruschette, perhaps, or marinated olives and anchovies, or all manner of colorful savory vegetable salads. Antipasti normally arrive on platters to be shared, an enticing and festive sight.
The antipasto table found in old-fashioned Italian restaurants is a sort of precursor to the modern-day salad bar, though usually far better and certainly more beautifully presented. The idea is to let customers serve themselves (or be served by the maitre d' hotel) a few spoonfuls of room-temperature vegetable dishes - grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, lightly pickled artichoke hearts, sautéed mushrooms - along with a little cheese and salumi. There's something very welcoming about it.
It's an attractive concept to adopt at home for a dinner party, too. The advantages are obvious: Everything is prepared ahead, and there's no fussing. Serve it buffet style and let guests choose, or on individual plates as a composed salad-like first course.
Though many Italian delicatessens offer ready-made generic antipasto platters, I recommend curating your own; it's more interesting and you get only what you really want.
Change the vegetables seasonally. In spring, for an extremely simple antipasto, use crisp sliced fennel, blanched asparagus and snap peas and charred young onions, drizzled with fruity olive oil.
Choose the very freshest mozzarella, burrata or ricotta. These cheeses (serve just one kind or several) must be absolutely pristine, with no sour notes; buy them the day you intend to serve them, and make sure they are at cool room temperature, not straight from the fridge, to accentuate their milky sweetness. Purchase thinly sliced prosciutto, salame, mortadella or lardo the same day, too.
Of course, in some cases, antipasti don't necessarily precede a meal. At a wine bar, they may be the only thing offered. (Steal that idea if you're having a stand-up informal affair.) Their role, like that of tapas in Spain, is as an accompaniment to drinks, ordered one small plate at a time, all night long.
Spring Antipasto Platter
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 bunches small spring onions or scallions
1 bunch asparagus, about 1 pound, tough ends removed
1/2 pound sugar snap peas
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick rings
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, salame, mortadella or lardo
Flaky sea salt or fleur de sel
Extra-virgin olive oil
Basil or mint leaves
1 pound fior di latte, bufala mozzarella, burrata or fresh ricotta, at cool room temperature
1. Heat the broiler. Put a large pot of water on to boil.
2. Trim tops, roots and outer layer of spring onions, then arrange in one layer on a broiler pan. Broil until they are lightly charred on one side, two to three minutes, then turn and broil the other side until onions have softened a bit, about three minutes more. (It's fine if they become blackened in spots.) Remove pan and let cool to room temperature.
3. When water boils, salt well and submerge asparagus. Cook briefly, about two minutes for medium spears. Lift asparagus from water and spread in one layer on a kitchen towel and let cool to room temperature. Repeat process with the sugar snap peas and spread them on a separate kitchen towel.
4. Arrange spring onions, asparagus, snap peas and fennel on a large platter. Drape prosciutto around the edge. Season vegetables lightly with sea salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Garnish platter with basil or mint leaves. Put cheese on a small cutting board and pass separately. (Alternatively, compose individual plates with all components.)
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