Killer Apps: Why You Should Be Serving Antipasto

There's nothing less appealing than going to someone's place for drinks and getting served appetizers that might have been purchased at a gas station. If you graduated college in the two thousands and are still serving potato chips or Tostitos salsa, you're doing it all wrong. Don't worry though. I'm going to tell you how to put together a beautiful antipasto that requires no cooking and will have your guests thinking that you actually know what you're doing in the kitchen.

The word antipasto translates to "before the meal" and is a traditional Italian appetizer consisting of a variety of cured meats, cheeses and vegetables. The assortment historically varies according to geography and availability of ingredients, but for you and I there are no rules... especially with the cheeses. If you want to mix up Italy, Spain and France, that's perfectly acceptable. You can create a theme by pairing wine and cheese from the same location, but you don't want to come off like a jerk, so just take it easy in the beginning and work your way into it.

Let's begin by discussing the ingredients. Like I stated earlier, there are three components: meat, cheese and vegetables. The first thing we're going to talk about is Prosciutto Di Parma. You can do whatever else you want with the rest of this recipe, but you have to include the real prosciutto. You cannot get "domestic," and by no means buy the stuff that's already sliced and vacuum sealed. It's barely suitable for cooking with. If you're going to make any substitution at all, it should be Serrano ham. Hopefully you have access to a legit Italian deli who can hook you up with what you need, but if not, check out Whole Foods.

One of the many reasons I suggest purchasing your prosciutto from a professional is because the way it's sliced makes all the difference in the world. The prosciutto should be sliced thin and evenly and laid out properly between sheets of wax paper. It is also common for there to be a ring of fat around the pink cured meat, but it shouldn't account for more than around 10 percent of the total weight you're paying for. The prosciutto is around $23 per lb., so take a look at what you're buying. Every shop will let you sample whatever you are considering, so don't be afraid to ask for a taste and always ask the price of what you're ordering. If there really seems to be a lot of fat on what they're slicing, ask for them to trim it or go elsewhere. Once you establish a relationship with your local deli, you won't have to go through this inspection process, but if this is your first antipasto, just pay attention — I learned from some of the best.

It's absolutely fine if the prosciutto is your only meat, but I typically like to add one more. I usually go with a hot dried sausage that comes in a stick that I take home and slice into thick chunks. It's labeled "hot" because of the addition of spicy red pepper flakes, not the temperature. This type of dried sausage tastes great with all bread and cheese and provides a nice contrast to the smooth and light, thinly-sliced prosciutto. You may also substitute a nice sopressata that is infused with red wine and black peppercorns. Either one should cost you 25-50% less than the Prosciutto Di Parma.

Now that you've handled your meat, let's consider the cheese. The two most common are mozzarella and a sharp provolone. I apply the same rules to cheese as I do cured meats. If it's already sliced and sealed, I don't mess with it. Wherever you just bought your cured meat will also have the cheese, so don't stress out. Just remember your applying the same concept to the cheese that you did the meat. One is smooth and silky in texture and taste and the other is sharp, hard and potent. I also suggest adding a third cheese to your platter. Something creamy and bold will work well. Ask for suggestions or samples at your cheese shop and pick anything that tastes good. You can't mess it up so don't worry about it.

You're almost there now. The third and final component is the vegetables. Typically they are marinated in olive oil. The most common choices are olives, roasted peppers and artichoke hearts, but you can get really creative here. Other things I use when they're available are sun-dried tomatoes, pickled mushrooms and tomatoes, cherry peppers, figs, Italian tuna, anchovies, and even mustard or honey. You could just put the olives out with the meat and cheese if you want to keep it simple, but I typically like to use 3-5 different things. It really depends on who your guests are too. Not everybody is crazy about salted pork slices, so if you want to lean heavier on the vegetables, go right ahead.

Now that you have all your stuff, take it home and put it in the refrigerator until a few minutes before your guests arrive. I also recommend NOT putting your mozzarella in the refrigerator. The guys at Fiore's in Hoboken taught me that. When you buy fresh mozzarella, just leave it on your counter until you're ready to slice it. If you're buying it a day in advance, then put it in the fridge. All of this stuff will taste just as good if bought a day in advance and kept cold.

When you're ready to serve your antipasto, consider the presentation. I like to use a large wooden cutting board for my meats and cheeses and either small tapas bowls or a separate platter for the vegetables. Since they're all marinated in oil, it's best to keep them away from the dry items. My favorite way to serve the prosciutto is in little clumps on the board. Just peel each individual piece from the wax paper and gently create little loose mounds. Next take your dried sausage and slice four or five quarter-inch pieces and leave the knife for your guests to use. Do the exact same thing with your cheeses, but place your mozzarella on its own dish. High quality mozzarella is wet, so don't compromise the other meat and cheese with its liquid.

Now that your antipasto is complete, you will just need some good bread and red wine. My favorites are light and crusty panella or ciabatta. Baguettes are perfectly suitable too. Just make sure your bread has a nice crust and stay away from seven grain or anything too fancy. You have enough going on with your antipasto. You're just looking for something light and crunchy to eat it with. The last thing now is the wine. Hopefully your friends aren't cretins and they will bring a decent bottle or two. Red wine is my first choice, but since you have such a wide selection of food prepared, you could serve virtually any wine to complement this spread.

The best thing about antipasto is that it can be served as the perfect appetizer or as the meal itself. If you're having friends over on a Friday night after work or to watch a game, this is all you need and there's absolutely no cooking required. If you buy the ingredients in advance, it can be put together in less than 10 minutes, which will allow you to spend your time with friends and family instead of working in the kitchen all night.