WHEN IN ROME, do as the Romans do. In fact, do as many Italians do: Eat antipasti.
Notafood, but an assortment of appetizer-like foods, an antipasto course is a fine wayto kick off a meal and can be an almost laborless dish, perfect for celebrating Labor Day this weekend.
Think of it as an appetizer with pizazz — though with enough foods on the platter, it can be a complete meal.
An antipasto platter is more than what youmight have found at one time at standard American Italian-style restaurants: a basic, uninspired selection of iceberg lettuce, mortadella, salami, tomato wedges, provolone cheese and canned black olives.
"The antipasto course can be among the most creative dishes in the Italian kitchen," says Julia della Croce, author of "Antipasti: The Little Dishes of Italy."
Indeed, any Italian restaurant worth its anchovies has made the antipasto course more loyal to its Italian origins: full of color, flavor and texture, and an expression of both the kitchen’s style and the availability of local specialties.
"A standard antipasti would always have an assortment of local olives, cheese, sliced and cured meats," Croce says. "But the antipasti can come in many forms: savory breads and pies, crostini with all kinds of toppings, fish and shellfish, meat, vegetables, polenta, rice and salad dishes, both hot and cold."
There are no set-in-stone rules on the hows and whats of antipasto. At its best, it’s acreative statement with a Mediterranean flavor. About the only must on the antipasti table is olive oil.
"Extra-virgin olive oil transforms the barest ingredients into a finished dish," Croce says. "For instance, bruschetta becomes dazzling when drizzled with a fruity olive oil."
Marcella Hazan, in "The Classic Italian Cookbook," describes antipasti as "the rogues of the Italian table," meaning that they can play many roles in a meal.
Forexample, cima alla genovese, a dish of stuffed, braised veal, can be a starter for ameal or the meal itself. A side dish of marinated, grilled vegetables for dinner might appear another time on the antipasti table.
"All in all, an antipasto should be enticing to look at and seductively delicious," Croce says.
It helps that local markets are carrying authentic Italian ingredients.
"It’s easier to make true family-style antipasto at home, because it’s easier to getproducts that are imported from Italy," says Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, author of "Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen," a companion cookbook to her PBS series.
"Prosciutto, the king of the antipasto assortment, can now be found across the U.S., as can imported cheeses, cured fish and vegetables. The surest way to capture the flavors, colors, and textures of a culture is by using authentic products. If you take a bite of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or taste a drop of aceto balsamico tradizionale, there is no doubt in your mind, or on your palate, that you are eating Italian."
Foranearly labor-free antipasto course, it’s as easy as a stop by a specialty market or the grocery deli, where you can find Italian cured meats and cheeses ready to arrange on the plate.
Stud the dish with an assortment of Italian olives and a few pickled peppers and strips of bottled roasted peppers. Offer slices of peasant bread drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, add a glass of chianti, and you’re on your way to a taste of Italy.
Meat: Coppa, prosciutto, Parma ham, Genoastyle salami, beef, veal, lamb Poultry: Chicken, duck, turkey breasts
Fish: Anchovies, sardines, shrimp, tuna, mussels Soft cheese:
Goat cheese, provolone, fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola
Hard cheese: Asiago, Parmesan, pecorino
Grilled vegetables: Eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash
Marinated vegetables: Artichoke hearts, mushrooms, pattypan squash, garbanzo beans, kidney beans Preserved vegetables: Pickled eggs; kalamata, cailletier, gaeta, nafplion, nicoise and/or nyons olives