Three years ago, on Thanksgiving morning, I gathered all the ingredients—lettuce, salami, prosciutto, aged provolone cheese, roasted red peppers, black olives, stuffed green olives and marinated mushrooms, eggplant and artichokes—for the coveted antipasto salad.
The salad is actually rather simple to make, and yet my family glorifies it as an art form. We eat it only on holidays, and, in recent years, it has become my job to assemble the dish, as family members congregate—and commentate—around the kitchen counter. (I'll be making one for Christmas.) Layering the meats, cheeses and vinegary vegetables in the right way is key, and my older brother is usually quick to point out if I do things in the wrong order—or to slap wandering hands attempting to pluck olives.
On this particular Thanksgiving though, it was my boyfriend Ryan who was the first to question the artist’s methods. “I think you forgot something,” he said. I shot him a look, or so I’m told, as if to say, how would you know? (He partook in the antipasto tradition with my family at previous Thanksgivings, but wasn’t a fan. According to him, the eggplant is too slippery, and the mushrooms are, well, mushrooms.)
He ducked into the laundry room and, when he returned, planted a ring box on the countertop in front of me. Now, most people would think this an odd time for a marriage proposal. Luckily, I hadn’t yet dunked my hands into the jar of oily artichokes. But to me, it was perfect. The making and eating of antipasto at holidays is a family tradition, and he was becoming family.
As far as I know, the family tradition began with my Italian Grandma Bellino, teaching her daughter, my Aunt Bella, how to arrange the platter. Aunt Bella, in turn, taught my mother, who then taught me. But I’m sure I come from a longer line of antipasto makers. Meaning “before the meal,” antipasto has long been the first course of formal Italian feasts.
The dish, as chef and Mediterranean cooking expert Joyce Goldstein notes in her 2006 book Antipasti, has and continues to go by a number of names. In early Roman times, it was called antecoena (before the cena or “meal”) and gustatio or gustum (from the verb gustare, meaning “to enjoy”). But today, Italians might call it stuzzichini (from stuzzicare, “to pick”) or assaggi, meaning “little tastes.” Perhaps my favorite term, used in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, is apristomaco. Translation: stomach opener. Any Italian can appreciate that.
Apparently, to arrange the meats, cheeses and vegetables over a bed of lettuce, as we do, is an Italian-American interpretation (celebrity chefs Giada De Laurentis and Rachel Ray have their own recipes, even more heavy on the greens). The more authentic approach is to serve a spread of sliced meats, cheeses, seafood and grilled or marinated vegetables as appetizers at room temperature (more like these renderings by the Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten and Martha Stewart). A popular trend now is to turn antipasti (plural of antipasto) into a meal, as people do with Spanish tapas—something I can certainly endorse.