For Italians, food is love and there are a lot of ways to show that love. In a traditional family holiday dinner, as many as 10 courses may be served. From aperitivo cocktails and olives, enjoyed while standing and chatting, to the cold antipasto and insalata courses shared around the dinner table, to the formaggi e frutta course celebrating local cheese and fruits – the Italian meal offers many of the flavor-filled ‘small bites’ we like to call appetizers.
For home chefs, this is great news, as Italian chefs have mastered easy appetizers to serve between the more complex entrees. For those dining out, it offers opportunities for more taste exploration. The key to making these small bites shine is the use of high-quality ingredients: for a little to go a long way, every ingredient from the bread in bruschetta to the olive oil in salad should be something you’d enjoy tasting on its own.
The Aperitivo Course
An easy way to dress up a party (at home or when dining out) is to start with an aperitivo course of light wines or prosecco paired with a variety of fancy olives and nuts.
To make a hit with an aperitivo course, fill small serving bowls with a variety of gourmet snacks. Happily, olives come in a wide array of flavors and colors, depending on how ripe they are when picked and how they are washed and cured. Castelvetrano olives from Sicily are recently available in the US and these large bright green olives are becoming a fast favorite, as their sweet fruit is rich and almost meaty (a pleasure to eat, like the vegetarian’s version of bacon).
Castelvetrano olives pair particularly well with Marcona almonds, bright green shelled pistachios, and a variety of other olives for contrast. If you can find them, the Genovese red Taggiasca olive offers a nice contrast, both with its color and sweet and salty flavor. Alternately, any quality olive mix should provide a lovely contrast. If you want to learn more about olives, we find Delallo’s olive encyclopedia to be a great resource.
Reviving the Bruschetta in Unique Ways
For a more filling option, take a step back for a fresh look at the much abused classic: bruschetta. Ignore for a moment the frozen bread and tomato supermarket atrocities of the same name and the jars of ineffective salsa also marketed under this appellation, and return to the beautiful past of this Italian favorite. The word “bruschetta” comes from the Roman verb “bruscare,” meaning to roast over coals. Well-made bruschetta takes slices of crusty bread and toasts them, even to the point of slight charring, preferably with a fresh selection of vegetables. Consider the following options for a refreshing take on this option:
- To make a proper bruschetta, slice your bread and drizzle or brush with extra virgin olive oil. Consider topping with any of the following prior to a few minutes in a hot oven:
- Fresh fig slices with goat cheese.
- Strawberry quarters with Gorgonzola-infused Ricotta.
- Local melon covered with a slice of prosciutto or pancetta.Roasted red pepper and Brinata (that’s a sheep-milk equivalent of Brie, made in Tuscany).
- Pan seared fresh grape tomatoes (cook them in the pan at high heat in oil with a few leaves of fresh basil until they blister and pop).
- A thick juicy layer of caponata (that’s the Italian version of ratatouille), which you can cook the night before. It consists of fresh chopped eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic and herbs covered and oven roasted together in a Dutch oven.
- For a fun alternative to prepared appetizers, try an Italian tasting party.
- Once you’ve found a nice crusty bread for bruschetta, you can even serve the lovely hot toast uncovered, with four or five small bowls of different extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
- If you can find a local fine grocer, look for various makes of extra virgin olive oil (as a general rule, the smaller and more expensive the bottle, the more unique its flavor.)
- You’ll find oils that range from fragrant to floral to ripe and fruity. Balsamic vinegars age (and price) like fine wine. You’ll find many sweet 7-10 year old options best for drizzling over fresh fruit, paired with dry cheese, or even over vanilla ice cream! Some stores even have options to sample the oils and vinegars with a cracker or stale bread to inform your purchases.
The Ultimate Formaggi e Frutta
Formaggi e Frutta (fruit and cheese) can be served as an appetizer or as a light dessert. It is typically composed of local cheeses and seasonal fruit so the composition of your Formaggi e Frutta plate can vary greatly depending on where you are and the season you’re in. Here are just a few Italian cheese and fruit combinations you might want:
Hard Provolone is an aged cheese as opposed to sandwich provolone. It has a texture similar to parmesan and pairs well with pairs, olives, tangerines, apples, and figs.
Gorgonzola is a great choice for a Formaggi e Frutta plate, but may be a little strong for the uninitiated. It goes great with figs and pears but not so well with olives. Salty or strong cheeses add some fantastic variety to a plate, but they can be a little more tricky to pair well.
Shaved Parmesan, a staple for pasta dishes, is particularly nice with a little melon, fresh figs, or seckel pears. Make sure to pay extra for the good stuff, not the pre-grated “parmesan” they sell in a can.
Belicino is a flavorful sheep’s milk cheese from the Belice Valley in Sicily; it often contains olives and pairs well with strongly flavored fruit like pomegranates or oranges. You’ll only find this unique cheese at speciality shops, so keep your eyes open for it.
Caprese is a soft buffalo parmesan with extensive applications in Italian cooking. It goes well with tomatoes and basil, but also tastes nice with mild fruit like apples or melons.
Fontina is a lovely soft cheese popular in switzerland and Italy. It gets along well with just about any fruit and spreads perfectly on fresh bread.
Caciottina Canestrata di Sorrento is soft white cow’s milk cheese that is made in a wicker basket giving it a unique shape. It pairs nicely with tomatoes and grilled vegetables that may be a little heavy for an after dinner plate, but make a perfect appetizer.
Madonie Provola is a pear shaped cheese that it sometimes lightly smoked with local Italian wood. This full-fat cow’s milk cheese may be hard to find outside the mother country, but can make a special addition to a Formaggi e Frutta plate. It’s flavor is slightly sweet and very creamy. It pairs fine with grapes, olives, and just about any other fruit you can think of.
We could go on for hours about the various ways to put together a the ultimate Formaggi e Frutta plate, but there’s only so much time for writing during the busy holiday season. Build your own plate using some of the local dairy cheeses here along the Front Range and tell us what you come up with the next time you swing by for dinner.
Enjoy your Italian appetizers, at home and away. Buon appetito, and as Mama always says, mange, mange!