Last week, out for a quick Italian dinner, my partner and I ordered a small antipasto.
"Would you like it with our traditional house vinaigrette?" the smiling waitress asked.
We agreed. It was placed between us. We were then given two plates. It wasn't anything spectacular to look at, just a medley of some vegetables, a little salami and some cheese tossed together in that familiar restaurant-style pressed glass bowl. The lettuce was iceberg. There were black olives, slivers of red onions. Triangles of provolone cheese and salami were placed on top of the lettuce. Rolls of prosciutto were stuck randomly around the outside. The tomatoes were cubed and piled in the center. Dishing the salad to my plate, I snitched a small cucumber.
"Oh yummy," I thought, "that dressing is really good."
Hungrily I filled my plate, being careful to take only a 1/3, leaving 2/3 for the bigger appetite.
We ate silently, crunching a peperocini, gobbling some peppers, chomping some cheese and munching some meat.
"This is really good," I said.
"Very good," he responded. "I think it's the best antipasto I've ever had!"
My friend, Lynda, and I are always searching for the very best antipasto salad - or is it the best antipasta? Or are we searching for the best antipasti salad? Or is it just antipasti, or is it just antipasto?
But what is an antipasto really?
American born, we connect antipasto salads to those served in Italian-American restaurants. Always recognizable from restaurant to restaurant, but never the same, antipastos are those extra-large salads full of lots of jibs. (According to Wikanita, jibs are a conglomeration of lots of little tasty things.)
When asked, one friend described an antipasto as food that contradicts (anti as against?) the pasta. Sorry, but the term quite literally means an appetizer. "Anti" meaning before, "Pasto" meaning meal; thus before the meal. The foods we associate with an antipasto - meat, cheese, olives, vegetables, peperocini - might be served in Italy as a starter snack before the meal, much like the Spanish serve an array of tapas. If there is one appetizer served, it is called an antipasto; if there are several, they are called antipasti. Because we see these starters served on lettuce we call them a salad. Technically, the salad could be called an antipasto referring to one salad or an antipasti salad referring to the many items on the salad. There is no such thing as antipasta. Well, now you know.
So what is in an antipasto? Traditional antipasto includes cured meats, olives, roasted garlic, peperoncini, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, provolone or mozzarella cheese and marinated small green peppers topped off with olive oil. Sounds good to me. To make it a salad, just add lettuce, tomatoes or cucumbers.
There are no die-hard rules for attendance on the antipasto plate. People all like different things. When I go looking for the best antipasto, I want it fresh. I don't want to see any brown spots or limp lettuce. Meat and cheese on lettuce make for flat lettuce. To those restaurants that make up the salad early in the day, I say "whoa." Please assemble the masterpiece fresh.
I want my antipasto Italian. I want anchovies. I have a passion for these salty little fish. I want olives. I love olives - one of my five favorite foods - green ones, black ones, salted and brined, garlic and herbed. I love them all.
I want the meat that is true cured meat. I want prosciutto; I want hard salami or pepperoni. I want salted meats with flavor. I don't want to see folded boiled ham or curled baloney. For cheese, I want provolone or mozzarella. Skip the Swiss.
My antipasto has to look good. Delicious, fresh and beautiful. I think part of this salad's appeal is it's eye appeal. I want my antipasto to have a plan with the meat rolled like a cigar or arranged up one side. Maybe it could have a circle of cherry tomatoes on one side with peperocinis fanned on the other. I want color, texture and balance.
Most importantly, I want olive oil, as Rachel would say, EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil). I want it light in color and light in flavor. I want extra, extra virgin, the champagne of olive oils, drizzled on my jibs. If the oil is the best it needs no herbs, but if you must, use fresh herbs and garlic, always garlic. I want the ingredients of my masterpiece to speak for themselves.
Lynda wants her salad to have different kinds of meat, but not a lot of meat. She wants the dressing to taste super good and strong and no mayonnaise.
So my husband had the best antipasto he ever had last week. We both agreed it was the freshness and the dressing that made the salad taste so good.
I asked the waitress what was on the salad.
"Oh, some olive oil that comes from Italy and a whole bunch of fresh herbs and stuff," she said.
Just what I thought.
For me, last week's antipasto had the perfect taste, but it didn't have the needed appearance or the anchovies.
I am still searching.