You say “Al Fresco” and I say Antipasto!

A few weeks back, I had a conversation with some folks about antipasto and what exactly it is as well as the when and where one eats it. We all seemed to have slightly different ideas about what it is, but one thing we could agreed on is that it’s wonderful in all its interpretations and variations.

So what exactly is it supposed to be? By definition:




noun: antipasto; plural noun: antipasti
  1. (in Italian cooking) an appetizer typically consisting of olives, anchovies, cheeses, and meats.
  2. : any of various typically Italian hors d’oeuvres; also a plate of these served especially as the first course of a meal

With that settled, the collective decision was that for us, a plate of antipasto—Italian inspired or otherwise—could include, meats, cheeses, fruit, vegetables, nuts, jam, condiments or a dip. And as to the when, I don’t feel that the overall concept (though perhaps the word) must be limited to an appetizer or a first course. For instance, what if it’s a combo of fruit, spiced nuts, cheese, jam, bread and a bit of chocolate, then why not have it for dessert?

Summer is my favorite time to enjoy the simply prepared or raw fresh produce of the season, and eating it al fresco—or outdoors, makes it taste all the better. Add to that my love of sitting out on my deck, enjoying a cocktail on a Friday night and not really feeling the love of cooking a big meal, and suddenly the what, when and where all comes together for me. Antipasto, it’s what’s for dinner!

An article in a recent issue of Cooking Light magazine discussed this idea – how “snack dinners” can become a meal that encourages everyone to eat more veggies and fruit by loading up on those, with only small amounts or “bites” of meat and cheese—or no meat or cheese at all. The possibilities for combinations are endless and a great thing about this approach is that outside of the raw veg ingredients (and even some of those) most of the ingredients can be purchased ready to eat and paired with a homemade dip or spread. It’s a perfect solution for dinner after a busy work day or when it’s hot and you don’t want to heat up the kitchen. We’ve enjoyed this approach so much that we do it about once every other week, trying out different dips, dressings, spreads, bread or no bread…whatever seems to work best with the ingredients on hand. Dinner has never been so much fun.

Here are a few suggestions for dinner-worthy antipasto-styled plates to enjoy al fresco or indoors, as well as some similar ideas inspired by other cultures, plus some dips and spreads to go with them. There’s also a dessert version, though I’m not suggesting it for dinner by itself. I’ve linked to recipes for dips, jam and spreads, both my own as well as to recipes I use all the time that are not mine, but are favorites. Cheers and happy eating!


The antipasto platter above and in the main photo at the beginning of this post: Prosciutto, grape tomato, celery, carrot, fresh radish, blanched broccoli rabe, red grapes, sweet peppadews drained and stuffed with peppered goat cheese, greek olives, marcona almonds, spiced gouda and assorted crackers with Cooking Light’s Pesto Yogurt Dip.

another day on the deck

A revisit of the first plate above using leftover veggies, the same dip and a cheese, nut and olive plate with about 2 ounces of prosciutto. Other meats you could use are thinly sliced sopressatta, chorizo or jamon. Very small remnant pieces of cheese (those under $4 cheese remnant baskets at the market are good for these) including Humbolt Fog goat cheese, 3-year aged gouda and Red Leicester were paired with the ultra thin and light “34 Crisp” brand black pepper crackers. Any leftover pesto yogurt dip makes a nice salad dressing, also.

Veggies and roquefort

A simple plate of farmer’s market baby carrots, cucumber, red bell pepper, celery, blanched broccoli crowns and oven roasted green beans with Cooking Light’s Fancy Blue Cheese Dressing. Obviously, left over blue cheese dressing has all kinds of uses! Or for a more decadent dip, try my Caramelized Shallot and Blue Cheese Dip.

Derby Day spread2

This very casual spread for Derby Day was really nice after a long hike and while watching the horses slog through the Kentucky Derby this year. It’s a little more bread-centric than I usually go for, but delicious. The veggie plate at left is cucumber, grape tomato, blanched broccolini, carrots, celery, radish with another Cooking Light recipe, this time for Basil Parmesan Dip, which is of a more dip-like consistency than the Pesto Yogurt Dip referenced above.

In honor of Derby Day, the top center plate features Benedictine spread (known as the “pimento cheese” of the Derby) and crackers, along with rustic (because I left the crusts on!) tea sandwiches made from a seeded bread spread thinly with softened unsalted butter, thinly sliced radish, fresh arugula leaves, a tiny bit of sea salt and a sprinkle of chives. Here’s the recipe for the Benedictine spread from Serious Eats—only I didn’t use the green food coloring. Oh. My. Goodness. That Benedictine spread and those sandwiches were awesome!

Some other theme ideas:

Make it a little Mexican: Homemade or purchased guacamole, cheese dip or salsa for your dip (or a combo) paired with grape tomatoes, raw bell pepper strips or mini grilled or roasted whole mild peppers, roasted or grilled chayote, zucchini slices, jicama strips, roasted and/or spiced pepitas, plantain chips (I know, not Mexican but delicious with guacamole), corn tortillas or tortilla chips. And if you wanted to add a meat protein, some grilled shrimp with a little coriander and lime juice rub would be lovely.

Make it a little Greek: Tzatziki is the way to go for this platter in my book, but you could make a feta based dip as well. Dippers can include cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices or sticks, red and green bell pepper strips, roasted green beans, souvlaki, toasted pita, and side items can include cubes of feta, whole raw or roasted almonds and a bowl of kalamata or mixed greek olives.

Make it Dessert: Baguette, fresh figs, fig jam or Drunken Fig Jam, seedless grapes, sliced pear, a selection of 3 cheeses (I like one soft, a semi-soft and one hard such as a goat cheese or chevre, a blue cheese and a Spanish manchego, aged gouda or cheddar), spiced pecans, walnuts or these glazed red pepper and fennel almonds and a bit of really high quality and high cacao content dark chocolate.

The rest, my friends, I will leave to your imagination, outdoor spaces and creativity!