Go ahead: Skip dinner. Italians do this often, particularly on carefree summer evenings when hovering over a stove is the furthest thing from anyone's mind. Of course, no one goes hungry. Not with an irresistible array of light, bright antipasti to choose from. These appetizers bear little resemblance to their American descendants, those ho-hum platters of salami and provolone. Italian antipasti, in all their delicious guises, are colorful quilts of diminutive dishes -- leafy salads, fried fish, marinated vegetables and olives, and countless other eye-catchers -- that blanket restaurant bars and call out to early-evening cravings.
In Italian homes, too, a social snacking ritual gets under way at the twilight hour. The official role of an antipasto is to spark the appetite (the word means "before the meal"). But consumed to the tune of conversation and clinking glasses, the morsels can morph into a marvelous meal of their own. Friends drop by, wines are uncorked, pantry and refrigerator doors are opened, and antipasti -- a little of this, a little of that -- are enjoyed in casual, convivial settings, be it a crowded kitchen or a twinkling garden.
Small plates play a role in many of the world's cuisines, but few countries have embraced them quite like Italy, where the tradition stretches back to the time of the ancient Romans. In her 1954 book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David wrote: "Among Italian antipasti are to be found some of the most successful culinary achievements in European cooking." There are several regional variations. In Emilia-Romagna, aperitivo hour is a moveable feast that sees wine-bar hoppers indulging in stuffed olives, raw-milk cheeses, and bite-size sandwiches. In the Veneto, restaurants present cicchetti, such as marinated sardines with raisins, saffron-tinged arancini (stuffed balls of risotto), and codfish puree on grilled polenta -- all infused with the worldly flavors the merchants of Venice brought to the table centuries ago.
Below, you'll find subtly varied classics that capture the antipasti spirit. Small plum tomatoes mingle with lemon thyme, fried sage leaves overlie fried anchovy fillets, rounds of summer squash band with bits of young pecorino. Additional nibbles to serve alongside could include chunks of crusty bread, ribbons of prosciutto, or a selection of Italian cheeses, such as La Tur, Taleggio, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Antipasti are also traditionally paired with drinks that tickle the taste buds. Prosecco spiked with Campari and lemon is just right, as is a simple glass of white wine. And because antipasti are frequently served at room temperature, summer cooks can prepare them hours in advance, then dive in with their guests.
Raw Beets with Orange-Coriander Vinaigrette
Summer-Squash Salad with Herbs and Pecorino Fresco
Preserved Tomatoes with Lemon Thyme
Marinated Baby Artichokes
Fried Anchovies and Sage
Summer Bagna Cuda