“Listen, I’m Italian. As soon as I sit at a table I gotta have bread within 15 seconds.” -Sebastian Maniscalco
Sebastian Maniscalco, an insightful and hilarious comedian from Chicago, muses on the idiosyncrasies of being Italian in his Showtime special, “Aren’t You Embarrassed?” He spends a lot of time talking about food (as Italians love to do!) and this is one of my favorite lines. Apart from being absolutely true, it got me thinking about the “Italian table” and the traditional foods that are ever-present in our dining experiences. In our family, it’s always antipasto.
But first a background story.
My mother’s father is Sicilian and he came to America with his family in 1916. They left their seaside home in Sant’Elia for Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the close quarters and culture shock of the immigrant neighborhoods. My Grandfather loved to reminisce about the old country; his adventures on the beach with his sister Rose, the olive groves behind their home, the smell of orange blossoms on the wind. His memory was extraordinary and he could evoke sounds and smells with his storytelling. A tomato was much more than a tomato – it was the color of summer poppies, smooth as sea glass, beautiful like an apple from Eden. His backyard garden was its own kind of Eden, the small plot along the garage bursting with multiple varieties of tomatoes, bushes of basil, rows of parsley and chives. When we were children he had a peach tree that, by some miracle given the climate of Wisconsin, managed to produce bushels and bushels of the most delectable peaches every season. I think it was less miracle and more his love of the earth, for cultivating living things, and force of will! My Grandparents’ table was always a bounty – an experience for the senses from beginning to end.
Our family meals always have a very traditional component – the antipasto platter. At its most basic it’s a plate to nibble from while you are enjoying a glass of wine, visiting with friends, and waiting for the main course to be served. But take it a step further and it becomes a delight of colors, textures and tastes to set the stage for a meal.
Zesty marinated olives, garlic stuffed olives, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes can be combined with hard cheeses such as Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, any of Wisconsin’s own delectable Sartori varieties. The addition of meats like salami, mortadella or prosciutto add another dimension of flavor. The salty and savory can be offset with the sweetness of grapes or melon to balance the flavors. In our home, thin slices of fennel are always on the plate as a refreshing palate cleanser to cut the richness of the meats and cheeses. In the summer, a simple caprese of tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil drizzled with a rich balsamic vinegar is refreshing and light.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that bread is, indeed, an essential component to any Italian table. And while not strictly considered antipasto, it’s not a bad idea to have it out before anyone arrives. If you don’t, you’ll only have about fifteen seconds to get it there.