Antipasti is an Italian word meaning literally "before the meal," and is the appetizer or hors d'oeuvre course. This term is the plural form of the word antipasto, which is often also used.
This course may consist of a number of different foods, depending on the meal and the circumstances. In a general sense, it could be almost anything served before the main meal, even fare outside of traditional Italian cuisine, such as potstickers or deviled eggs. More often, however, this term is used to refer to a number of traditional Italian appetizers that can be categorized into four different groups: meats, olives, vegetables, and cheeses.
Meats served as antipasti are usually served cold, and may include cold cuts, sausages, or cured meats. Turkey and ham are two examples, while pepperoni or salami may also be served sliced into thin pieces. A number of cured meats may also be served, most especially the dry-cured Italian ham known as prosciutto. While these meats are usually served in thin slices, they may also be served in larger pieces, or in the case of salami or pepperoni, still in their casings.
Olives are a staple of Italian cuisine, and so are nearly always found in a traditional hors d'oeuvre course that is not exclusively meat. Kalamata, Nicoise, and Colossole olives are the most common types included. These olives may be served on their own or stuffed with different cheeses, garlic, nuts, prosciutto, or hot peppers.
Vegetables served as antipasti are usually served raw, or perhaps marinated. While any vegetable can in theory be dished up, and sometimes one encounters carrots or broccoli, it is more common to find vegetables such as mushrooms, artichokes, or sun-dried tomatoes. Often, a number of different types of mushrooms are served together, perhaps each prepared differently; some might be marinated and served cold, others marinated and served hot, and still others grilled. This allows the diner to experience one food in a number of different styles.
Cheeses are also an important part of the course. Usually, traditional Italian cheeses are served, although in some cases, more exotic varieties may also be included. The cheeses may be dished on their own, or wrapped in cured meats or stuffed into olives or mushrooms. Although bread is not always a part of the appetizer offerings, if it includes spreadable cheeses, it will most likely be served with something to spread them on.
Usually, this course is served simply as a dish of assorted meats, cheeses, olives, and vegetables, but the term may also be affixed to another type of food. The most common example of this use of the term is antipasti salad, which is usually a green salad covered in various cheeses, olives, cold cuts, and other assorted meats.