Italians like structure in the way they eat. To them, the balance between the different courses of the meal is as important as the balance between the ingredients of each dish. In Italy, eating is far more than nutrition, it’s a time where families, friends and colleagues get together, relax and participate in the dining ritual. In Italy, even the most informal meals include multiple courses. This does not mean that people eat more food- the various courses are small and a way to break down the meal into different sections, adding variety and creating a progression. Appetizers (Antipasto- the singular form and Antipasti- the plural form of the word) and first courses, Primi Piatto (come first because of their delicate flavors (and textures); second courses follow with their heavier elements; desserts, coffee and liquors are reserved to end the meal.
Antipasto means “before the meal” and is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. It is served at the table and signifies the beginning of the meal. Its main purpose is to extend the meal. Traditional European dining is nothing like the fast-paced meals we most often consume in the US. Instead, the food is enjoyed slowly and is only one part of the dining experience. The other part is, of course, good conversation. A typical meal, consisting of antipasto, salad or soup, pasta and a meat dish, perhaps followed by a light dessert, is supposed to take time, as it is meant to build and maintain relationships with friends and family.
There is tremendous range and regional variation in what constitutes an antipasto, and in many situations an antipasto could be considered an elaborate meal by itself.
There are several bread-based preparations that may be included with an antipasto. Most typical are bruschetta (known in Tuscany as fett’unta)—toasted or grilled bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with fruity olive oil (chopped tomatoes or other toppings can also be added); and crostini, thin slices of toast covered with an assortment of pastes made from cheese, chicken livers, mushrooms, artichokes, olives and so forth.
One may find any or all of the following on an antipasto table: marinated cold vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, whole small onions, and peppers; boiled greens such as spinach, cicoria (chicory), and broccoli rabe; anchovies, seafood salad, and mushrooms marinated in olive oil; frittatas (unfolded filled omelette); affettato (cold cuts) of cured meats such as salami, prosciutto, mortadella, smoked tongue, and sausage.
There are also cheeses, especially Provolone, Mozzarella, Asiago, Parmesan, and Pecorino. The favored cheese is mozzarella di bufala, which is made at least partly from buffalo milk (that is, the milk of the water buffalo, not that of the American bison) and has a distinctive taste. A popular cold antipasti is prosciutto and melon or figs, carpaccio (very thin slices of raw beef or fish), and bresaola (cured air-dried beef) drizzled with olive oil.
Antipasti can also be fried and served warm. Crocchette (croquettes) are popular; one type is Arancini (rice balls filled with cheese or ground meat, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried). There are olive ascolane (fried stuffed olives), baccalà filetti (dried salt cod, filleted and fried), and vegetables dipped in batter and fried. The famous fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers) are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies before being dipped in batter for frying.
Primi Piatto or just primi are felt to constitute the first course of an Italian meal, though they follow the antipasto. This course includes either pasta, rice, gnocchi, or polenta with sauce, or soups containing pasta, rice, or farro (spelt—an ancient variety of wheat).
The variety of pasta shapes and sauces is seemingly infinite. Regions and even villages often have their own specific creations. It is important for Italians to match the shape of the pasta with the sauce, though they allow much flexibility. While almost any combination is possible, there are “rules.” One general rule is that smooth sauces are appropriate on long pasta, and sauces with chunks of vegetables or meats are better on small pasta shapes, which trap the chunks. Another is that fresh egg pastas work better with butter based sauces instead of olive oil–based ones. In the dairy-rich north of Italy, fresh egg pastas are very popular, whereas in the olive oil–dominated south, dried or egg free pastas predominate. An important “rule” is that all pastas are consumed without a spoon (that is, with just a fork), even spaghetti.
Fresh egg pastas include noodles such as fettuccine, tagliarini, and pappardelle (all ribbon-shaped in various widths), and filled pastas such as ravioli, tortellini (small, hand-pinched, ring-shaped), and agnolotti (small, half-moon-shaped). Popular dried pastas include spaghetti, penne (short, thick, tubular, cut diagonally), and farfalle (bowties). Some pasta types are quite specifically associated with a certain region, as is the case with orecchiette (little ears), a traditional pasta from Apulia (Puglia).
Risotto is a uniquely Italian way of cooking rice, resulting in a dish with a creamy consistency. Risotto is best made with special types of rice such as arborio, canaroli, or vialone nano. Popular recipes include Milanese (that is, with saffron—risotto Milanese, unlike other risottos, is traditionally served with osso buco, a meat dish, as a secondo), con funghi (with mushrooms), con frutti di mare (with seafood), and nero (with squid ink).
Polenta (thick cornmeal mush) is typically a northern dish. It can be soft and creamy with a sauce on top (often tomato with sausage and pork ribs), or it can be cut into shapes and baked, fried, or grilled. It is traditionally a cool-weather dish served on a wooden plate.
Gnocchi (dumplings) are either di farina (made from wheat flour) or di patate (made from potato). There are also gnocchi alla romana, made of semolina flour and traditionally served on Thursdays in Rome. Crespelle (crepes) may also be a first course and can be filled with meat or with cheese and spinach.
Most pasta sauces are either butter-or olive oil–based. Tomatoes are probably the next most frequent ingredient, particularly in the south. An important component of baked pastas from Emilia-Romagna is balsamella (béchamel sauce). Whatever the sauce (called sugo or salsa), the most important thing is just to moisten the pasta with it. Italian pasta is served with much less sauce than its American counterpart.
The best-known sauces are probably ragù alla bolognese, made of vegetables, tomatoes, cream, and beef and simmered for a long time, and pesto alla genovese, a mixture of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, pecorino cheese, and olive oil that is traditionally served over trenette (thin strips of pasta), potatoes, and green beans. Other popular pasta sauces are quattro formaggi (four cheeses); boscaiolo (woodsman-style), containing mushrooms, peas, ham, tomatoes, cream, or whatever the chef wants to add “from the forest”; arrabbiata (literally, angry), a tomato sauce with hot peppers; as well as many for seafood (which are served without cheese).
Some Antipasti Recipes for Your Next Dinner Party
Arancini (Italian Rice Balls)
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups leftover risotto
- 4 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut in ½-inch cubes (about 1 cup)
- 3/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Marinara Sauce
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Beat eggs lightly with fork. Add the rice and stir gently but thoroughly.
Take 1 tablespoon of the mixture, place a cube of mozzarella in the middle and then top with another tablespoon of rice. Shape into a ball and roll in the breadcrumbs. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the rice mixture.
Refrigerate pan of rice balls for at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425°F. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over rice balls.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve with warm marinara sauce.
This healthy side vegetable salad is made quickly and is very fresh tasting. It is a great way to add more vegetables to your meals with little effort. It can be served as a salad, side vegetable, or appetizer, and can be made in advance and kept in your refrigerator. Give it a little extra time to marinate before serving and the flavor will be even better.
- 2 cups carrots, sliced on the diagonal
- 11/2 cups thick sliced celery
- 1 cup fresh sliced fennel bulb
- 2 tablespoons rinsed and halved olives
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried Italian herbs
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- extra virgin olive oil to taste
Bring salted water to a boil in a medium pot while cutting vegetables. Place carrots in boiling water for about 4 minutes and add celery and fennel. Cook for just 1 more minute. Immediately drain through a colander and rinse with cold water. Pat dry and place in a bowl with capers and olives.
Whisk all dressing ingredients together, drizzling olive oil at the end, a little at a time.
Toss with vegetables and marinate for at least 15 minutes before serving.
The cooking time for this recipe can vary depending on the exact size you cut your vegetables. You want your vegetables to be tender on the outside and still crisp on the inside. When they get to this point remove from the heat. Place them under cold water to stop the cooking. To check for doneness, insert the tip of a sharp knife. If you overcook the vegetables they won’t hold up and will get soggy quickly. If you undercook them they won’t absorb the dressing. It is also very important that your vegetables are dry, so they don’t dilute the flavor of the dressing.
Savory Cheese Biscotti
Makes about 45 biscotti
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or Eagle Ultra Grain flour
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (coarse grind)
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian herb mix
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 cup grated aged Asiago cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced almonds (with skins) or pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, or pistachio nuts, toasted
- 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten or 1/2 cup egg substitute
- 1/2 cup low fat milk
- Tomato Marmalade, recipe below
Put the flour, pepper, dried herbs, baking powder, salt, cheeses, and almonds in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly to combine. Add the butter and pulse briefly. Combine the eggs or egg substitute with the milk and pour the mixture into the food processor. Process just until the mixture begins to form a ball of dough.
Turn the dough out onto a large piece of waxed paper and pat it into a disk. Wrap the disk in the waxed paper and refrigerate it for 2 hours.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Divide into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a log about 11 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. Wetting your fingers with water makes it easier to shape the logs.
Cover 2 rimmed baking sheet pans with parchment paper and place one log on each.
Bake the logs for 30 minutes, rotating the baking sheets on the oven shelves after 15 minutes. The logs should be lightly brown on top and springy to the touch. Remove them from the oven and transfer them to a rack to cool for 20 minutes.
Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees F. Place a log on a cutting board and, using a serrated knife, cut it on the bias into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Transfer the slices back onto the baking sheets.
Bake the biscotti for 40 minutes, turning them over once halfway through, until they are golden and crisp and switching the baking sheets on upper and lower oven shelves. Remove the biscotti to a rack to cool completely. Serve as an appetizer with cheese, salami, olives, and tomato marmalade.
Spread this marmalade on crostini and top with a sharp or pungent cheese. Using a sugar alternative such as, Domino Light or Truvia for Baking, works just as well as regular sugar in recipes. Since the sugar amount can be reduced by half with a sugar alternative, calories are saved.
Makes two 1/2-pint jars
- 5 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 2 cups sugar or 1 cup light sugar alternative
- Juice and peel of 2 oranges (peel should be cut into strips)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 chile peppers, minced
Cut each tomato into 4 pieces. Put the tomato pieces into a heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot as you go.
Add the remaining ingredients into the pot with the tomatoes. Set the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook at a fairly lively simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until the marmalade is glossy and thick enough to spread. Be sure to stir often to prevent burning. Remove bay leaves.
If you prefer a smoother sauce, you can blend the mixture using a blender, food processor or immersion blender.
Spoon the marmalade into sterilized jars and store the marmalade in the refrigerator, where it will keep for at least a month.
Some First Course Recipes for Your Next Dinner Party
Whole Wheat Fettuccine with Artichokes and Ricotta
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 9 oz. package frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted and quartered
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 pound whole wheat fettuccine
- 1 cup skim ricotta
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- Freshly grated Parmesan
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and as soon as it starts to sizzle, add the artichokes and lemon juice. Add 1/4 cup water, cover the pan, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the artichokes are tender.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous pinch of salt and cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente.
Meanwhile, whisk the ricotta, lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water together in a large pasta bowl until creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley.
Reserve about 1/2 cup pasta water and drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the bowl with the ricotta. If necessary, add a little hot pasta water to attain a creamy consistency. Add the artichokes and toss again. Serve immediately with generous amounts of grated Parmesan.
Herbed Italian White Beans
Makes 4 servings.
- 4 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon dried sage
- 1 (14-oz.) can cannellini beans (Italian white beans), drained
- 2 medium tomatoes, chopped (2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes may be substituted)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh basil, shredded
- 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar or to taste
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sage. Sauté about 2 minutes.
Add drained beans and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir gently to combine. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer about 10 minutes.
Uncover pan and remove from heat. Immediately add basil and vinegar and serve.
Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Pancetta & Spinach
4 servings, about 1 cup each
- 2 ounces pancetta, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound refrigerated or frozen gnocchi
- 10 oz. frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Put a large pan of water on to boil.
Cook pancetta in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add spinach, tomatoes, sugar and crushed red pepper and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are almost completely broken down, about 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar and salt. Remove from the heat.
Cook gnocchi in the boiling water until they float, 3 to 5 minutes or according to package directions. Add the gnocchi to the sauce in the pan; toss to combine. Serve with Parmesan.
- Healthy dinner recommendations from Ricciotti’s Chef Gero Dimaria (livegreatfoodblog.com)
- Cuisine of the Week: Italian (dualshow.com)
- Antipasti E Insalate (chefmuslih.wordpress.com)
- Risotto, Risotto Recipes & How To Make Risotto (williams-sonoma.com)
- Buon Appetito! Eating Our Way Through Milan (schwingeninswitzerland.wordpress.com)