Antipasto means "before the meal" and is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. Some have compared antipasto to hors d’oeuvres, but there are several distinctions. Hors d’oeuvres are served while guests are still standing, and tend to be served off trays in the most formal settings, or placed on a table. They are enjoyed with drinks prior to the meal. On the other hand, antipasto is served at the table and signifies the beginning of the Italian meal. Most table settings will feature a central variety plate, and small plates for each diner to enjoy this warm-up to the other courses.
Antipasto can consist of many things. The most traditional offerings are cured meats, marinated vegetables, olives, peperoni (not to be confused with the meat), which are marinated small peppers, and various cheeses, perhaps provolone, or fresh mozzarella. Other additions may be anchovies, or bruschetta, toasted bread, upon which one may stack the meats or cheeses. The dish is usually topped off with some olive oil.
Meats may include mortadella, but more traditionally, smoked ham, types of salami, prosciutto and coppa are usually offered. It really does not much matter which meats one chooses, as the dish is quite individual and can be suited to one’s taste. One frequently sees very inferior antipasto at so-called “family style” Italian restaurants. One may see a few slices of salami and perhaps prosciutto, with a few limp and clearly canned vegetables. To avoid encountering these weak attempts, one can inquire into the authenticity of the family restaurant to get the real deal.
Sometimes, an Italian meal will begin with a variant like caprese salad. This dish is a layering of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and leaves of basil, resembling the white, red and green flag of Italy. The salad is usually topped with olive oil, vinegar (often balsamic), and salt and pepper. It is not served in a salad bowl, but is usually accompanied by a small fork, and served from a shared dish. Diners take a few pieces of each item, and may also have bruschetta to accompany the dish.
Though antipasto varies in form, and numerous adaptations and recipes exist, its main purpose is to extend the meal. Traditional European dining is nothing like the fast-paced meals we most often consume today. 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, 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.
One should take the appearance of antipasto to mean that lingering over the meal and being conversant, rather than eating one’s food rapidly, is probably the accepted social norm. The dish can “take the edge off” for those hungry diners, but one should accept only a little, unless there are ample supplies on the table. Eating too much may make one disinclined to eat the rest of a meal, or be considered greedy by other diners.