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An Italian Meal: Part 2 - Antipasti

An Italian Meal: Part 2 - Antipasti
Sharing Antipasti in Cortein. Image: Eddie Jacob
 During the years I’ve been discussing their food culture with the Italians, I’ve received varying explanations of the antipasto course. What is indisputable is that antipasto means “before the meal” and not “before the pasta course”.
 
In regions where there is a wide variety and challenging quantities of antipasti, notably Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna and Puglia, it can seem bizarre that this course is, linguistically at least, not considered part of the meal.
 
Many believe that the antipasto is a relatively recent, modern addition to the Italian meal, one that acts as an appetite stimulant. Others argue that it’s a long-standing tradition, and a practical solution to the impatient demands of hungry farmers. A course that required minimal last-minute preparation, it could be quickly assembled and served immediately the workers sat down at the table, thereby giving the cook time to prepare the primo.
 
Either way, the antipasto is now a firmly established part of a meal and if you’re eating in an Italian’s house, the convivial chatter and the endless questions over the shared platters will ensure that you get to speak to all of your fellow diners pretty quickly. “Where do these artichokes come from?” “Who made the focaccia?” “Is this Romanelli’s capocollo?” “These peppers are delicious, have you had some?”
 
When eating out, at its simplest there may be an antipasto affettato, an assortment of sliced cold meats: salami, prosciutto crudo (the debate between the superiority of that from Parma in Emilia-Romagna versus San Daniele in Friuli can become quite animated), and local specialities such as crespone or culatello. In other words, a mouthwatering manifestation of the Italians’ passion for pork. For more variety, there’s the
An Italian Meal: Part 2 - Antipasti
Pietro Zito of Antichi Sapori. Image: Eddie Jacob
antipasto misto. Seasonal vegetables at their best may be grilled (aubergine slices), baked (stuffed tomatoes), fried (onion rings) or raw (sliced fennel or even broad beans still in their pods). This assortment sums up what a region has to offer and although many chefs mix traditional dishes with their own creations it’s fun to discover local favourites via the antipasti selection. The list is endless: artichokes, flattened then deep-fried, or cooked with mint and garlic are especially good in Rome, the raw beef salad is typical of Piemonte and the well-known vitello tonnato originated in Lombardia. On the coast, a selection of fish, sometimes raw, is popular although both anchovies and salt cod are found in regions far from the sea.
 
Whatever your conviction on the origins of the antipasto course, you’ll probably indulge for appetite-spurring reasons rather than because of work exhaustion. Although in the regions where antipasto has been turned into an art form, it can be quite a trial to stop at the point where one’s appetite is stimulated not sated. Puglia is one such region. It’s clear that Puglia is almost custom-made for excellent antipasti: a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, quality pork from Martina Franca, a long coastline with a strong tradition of fish and shellfish and superb bread.
 
In fact there are many places in Puglia where the number of antipasto dishes offered is hard to believe, but if you want quality as well as quantity, Pietro Zito’s restaurant Antichi Sapori in the small village of Montegrosso outside Andria has to be one of the main contenders. It’s impossible to predict what will be included as it depends on what is ready in Pietro’s fields, what the local farmers bring him and what his father unearths on his daily foraging excursion. Whatever it is - local salami, ricotta with celery, focaccia with wild herbs, artichokes with ham - it will be delicious, and you’re likely to join in with the regulars pleading “Basta!” when the umpteenth platter arrives.
 
In contrast further south in Ceglie Messapica, Lillino Silibello of Cibus may serve his antipasto all on one plate, but his selection is renowned and always delightfully balanced. Perhaps there will be a capocollo (made locally to his own recipe), a carpaccio of maialino di latte and, being a cheese obsessive, ricotta, sometimes served with toasted almonds, sometimes as a soufflé and sometimes both. This is the sort of selection that can inspire a fantastic picnic – especially if you don’t have a kitchen to hand.
 
When I’ve been on walking holidays in Italy we’ve refueled very happily with prosciutto crudo, salami, onions preserved in vinegar, artichokes in oil, the local Pecorino etc.
 
With our appetites joyfully whetted, it’s time to move on to the primo.
 
Antichi Sapori Piazza S.Isidoro 10
Montegrosso, Andria
+39 0883 569 529  www.antichisapori.biz
 
Cibus via Chianche di Scaranno 7
72013 Ceglie Messapica
+39 0831 388 990  www.ristorantecibus.it 
An Italian Meal: Part 2 - Antipasti
Aubergines. Image: Eddie Jacob
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