If you think of antipasto as that predictable plate of cured meats and sliced cheeses served in Italian restaurants, you have been both deceived and deprived.
Michele Scicolone, even though she grew up in an Italian-American household, thought of it this way, too. "Restaurants in America have presented us with that stereotype," she says.
But then 20 years ago, on her honeymoon, she and her brand-new husband went to Italy. They went into a small restaurant in Rome and there, off to the side of the dining room, was a huge banquet table spread with platters filled with all kinds of dishes.
Thinking they were leftovers the chef was trying to get rid of, she hesitated. But seeing that all the people around her who were Italian ordered from that table, she finally grew brave.
"It was so memorable," she recalls, "that I still have the slightly smeared notes on what I ate: a tender white bean salad in a minty vinaigrette; a wedge of golden frittata stuffed with spinach and Parmigiano; miniature calamari tossed with herbs and lemon juice; and a small tomato filled with herbed rice."
That first meal led her to begin collecting recipes which have recently been published in a book, "The Antipasto Table" (Morrow, hardcover, $20).
In Italy, she explains, the dishes that are called antipasto are literally a way of life -- both in restaurants and at home. They are the salads, the appetizers, the light meals, the side dishes. bTC "Really just about anything -- except large cuts of meat or pasta -- goes on an antipasto table."
It might be a seafood salad with rice, clams with tomatoes and capers, prosciutto with melon, sausage-stuffed tomatoes, marinated carrots, Parmesan cheese stuffed into dates, crispy fried eggplant, steamed escarole with anchovies and olives, a deep-dish vegetable-and-cheese pie, smoked salmon, or skewered scallops with lemon and herbs.
Among the breads, there would be bruschetta and crostini -- toasted breads topped with olive oil and garlic or a variety of other savory toppings -- plus the pizzalike focaccia.
In restaurants there, she says, "This is the way that Italian chefs like to show what they've gotten fresh in the market that day. Rather than revise the menu they will just put it out on the antipasto table.
"And this happens in the home as well. Women will shop in the morning and prepare the food before it gets too hot in the summer months. And then serve things at room temperature at lunchtime, which is generally the main meal."
It was a way of cooking, she realized, that she had grown up with. "My grandparents were born in Italy. My paternal grandmother was from a little island called Procida that's off the coast of Naples near Capri. And as I thought about the kinds of things that I had eaten as a child, I realized that so many of the dishes that I was seeing at antipasto tables in Italy were the things that we had eaten at home too, things that my mother and my grandmother would often cook early in the morning to get that chore out of the way. Then we would have those foods later in the day or even the next day."
She began collecting recipes on subsequent trips to Italy and at home. "I would always ask people how they would cook things. And I started to write down the things my mother and grandmother used to do that no one had ever written down before. I had never seen them in cookbooks."
Because her husband is in the wine business, they travel to Italy frequently and meet many winemakers and their families. "Naturally many of these people are fine cooks," she says.
From them, she has learned what contemporary dishes have been introduced into the cuisine, and many of these fit in the category of antipasto. "Just like any cuisine, the Italian cuisine is always evolving. There are all kinds of wonderful salads and lighter dishes that the Italians are cooking today."
A salad in the book, zucchini carpaccio, is an example of one of these contemporary dishes. "It's very, very thinly sliced baby zucchini dressed very simply with lemon and olive oil and salt and pepper. And then it has very thin shavings of Parmesan cheese over the top of it. It's delightful in summertime and you can put it together in minutes."
Preparing an antipasto buffet is a wonderful way to entertain, Ms. Scicolone says. "It works beautifully. I've had great success with serving an assortment of antipasto dishes. People can help themselves at the buffet table and take as much or as little as they want. They can pick and choose. It's a very flexible way of eating."
And many of the dishes, she continues, can be made ahead of time. "This would allow the cook to prepare early and have last-minute time to do other things."
And an antipasto buffet could also be part of a dinner centered around meats cooked on the grill, she adds.
This form of entertaining has another advantage -- for those who work and have little time for entertaining -- because a number of carryout dishes could be combined with just a few things (or even no things) prepared at home.
Most gourmet stores, specialty markets, Italian groceries -- and even certain supermarkets -- have the fixings for an antipasto dinner. Look for good quality imported olives, prosciutto and other sliced meats, Italian hard and soft cheeses, prepared salads plus focaccia and other breads.
And if you wanted to break with tradition, you could add a pasta salad. "In Italy, pasta is very rarely part of an antipasto table. And the Italians don't eat pasta salads the way we have them in this country."
But in American style, she adds, "pasta salad on an antipasto table would work very nicely."