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What is Antipasto?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Antipasto means "before the meal" and is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. Some have compared antipasto to hors d’oeuvres, but there are several distinctions. Hors d’oeuvres are served while guests are still standing, and tend to be served off trays in the most formal settings, or placed on a table. They are enjoyed with drinks prior to the meal. On the other hand, antipasto is served at the table and signifies the beginning of the Italian meal. Most table settings will feature a central variety plate, and small plates for each diner to enjoy this warm-up to the other courses.

Antipasto can consist of many things. The most traditional offerings are cured meats, marinated vegetables, olives, peperoni (not to be confused with the meat), which are marinated small peppers, and various cheeses, perhaps provolone, or fresh mozzarella. Other additions may be anchovies, or bruschetta, toasted bread, upon which one may stack the meats or cheeses. The dish is usually topped off with some olive oil.

Meats may include mortadella, but more traditionally, smoked ham, types of salami, prosciutto and coppa are usually offered. It really does not much matter which meats one chooses, as the dish is quite individual and can be suited to one’s taste. One frequently sees very inferior antipasto at so-called “family style” Italian restaurants. One may see a few slices of salami and perhaps prosciutto, with a few limp and clearly canned vegetables. To avoid encountering these weak attempts, one can inquire into the authenticity of the family restaurant to get the real deal.

Sometimes, an Italian meal will begin with a variant like caprese salad. This dish is a layering of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and leaves of basil, resembling the white, red and green flag of Italy. The salad is usually topped with olive oil, vinegar (often balsamic), and salt and pepper. It is not served in a salad bowl, but is usually accompanied by a small fork, and served from a shared dish. Diners take a few pieces of each item, and may also have bruschetta to accompany the dish.

Though antipasto varies in form, and numerous adaptations and recipes exist, its main purpose is to extend the meal. Traditional European dining is nothing like the fast-paced meals we most often consume today. Instead, the food is enjoyed slowly, and is only one part of the dining experience. The other part, is of, course, good conversation. A typical meal, consisting of antipasto, salad, soup, pasta and a meat dish, perhaps followed by a light dessert, is supposed to take time, as it is meant to build and maintain relationships with friends and family.

One should take the appearance of antipasto to mean that lingering over the meal and being conversant, rather than eating one’s food rapidly, is probably the accepted social norm. The dish can “take the edge off” for those hungry diners, but one should accept only a little, unless there are ample supplies on the table. Eating too much may make one disinclined to eat the rest of a meal, or be considered greedy by other diners.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon989589 — On Mar 13, 2015

@anon128443: The prefix 'ante-' means 'before'. 'Anterior' means 'near the front' or 'earlier in time'. 'Posterior' is the word used for one's 'behind'. Compare with 'antecedent', 'antepenultimate', 'antebellum', 'antechamber', 'antemortem'.

@anon30503: English 'ante-' was taken directly from Latin. But Italian is one of the evolutions of Latin. There, the original prefix became 'anti-' through time. Similarly, the Latin 'pastus' became 'pasto'.

By anon169637 — On Apr 22, 2011

to anon: sorry but what is the relationship between antipasto and pasta? you wrote:

" This confused me because antipasto is not an appetizer..." Of course antipasto is not pasta!

I'm Italian and the formal italian meal is composed like this:

1) Antipasto (is not a salad, nor a soup). The antipasto can be made with any kind of ham/cured meat but also with fish (shrimps, caviar, octopus, scallops. There are hundreds of recipes for this) or also with some vegetables like in a small soufflè or mozzarella and tomatoes or mushrooms. It is served in a shared dish only in the family. At the restaurants it is served in single plates (cold or warm antipasto) or at the buffet (only cold antipasto).

2) Primo (first course): pasta/risotto/soup/ gnocchi/ ravioli/ lasagna etc.

3) Secondo (like "second course"): meat or fish with cooked vegetables or fresh mixed salad.

4) Fruits 5) Dessert 6) Coffee and liquors.

If there is more than one antipasto (quite often) before you serve the cold ones, then the warm ones.

The antipasto must be "related" to the following courses but never serve the same ingredient (ex: never marinated smoked salmon as antipasto and then a risotto made with smoked salmon, or salmon as a "seconda"). Also no good to serve only fish- antipasto if the first course is pasta with meat sauce.

The appetizer are like "aperitivo": you can drink something and eat something like chips, olives etc. before the meal.

By anon136677 — On Dec 23, 2010

Picking up on anon128443's comments, ante means "before". One's behind is one's posterior.

By anon128443 — On Nov 19, 2010

Anon30503- 'Ante' means behind. Like your anterior. Not quite the same as something that would come at the front, or start of a meal.

By anon73831 — On Mar 29, 2010

I have heard a lot of different answers for this question. Thank you for being very descriptive. Good article.

By anon72591 — On Mar 23, 2010

"Anti" in italian is the prefix meaning before. "Pasto" means meal. Therefore antipasto, or antipasti (plural), is served before the meal and generally can be considered an appetizer.

By anon72035 — On Mar 21, 2010

that was great. thanks.

By anon65296 — On Feb 12, 2010

I had dinner last night at Carrabba's, which I have never had before. when asked if we'd like some appetizers, I replied there are none on the menu. The waitress pointed to the Antipasto and said they're right here.

This confused me because antipasto is not an appetizer. Antipasto does not mean pasta, as any traditional Italian meal is served with pasta.

Appetizers are food or drink to stimulate the appetite. Antipasto is the beginning of the formal dinner and usually served on a large platter, which everyone eats from. Pretty much anything can be antipasto as long as there's no pasta in it.

It's sort of like having soup and salad before your main entree, but don't be confused that it is an appetizer.

By anon30503 — On Apr 20, 2009

Why isn't it 'ante' instead of antipasto?

By anon14533 — On Jun 18, 2008

I just want to know if antipasto is some kind of flour, and where can I get it. Thank you

By anon5427 — On Nov 25, 2007

As an Anglo-Aussie, I would like to thank you for the excellent commentary on Anipasto. I like the way the writer is attempting to revive something that has been lost in many American homes. That is - conversation over meals, not eating too much and building relationships. How refreshing and elevating - thanks.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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