Italian food is often the first ethnic food Americans experience and frequently becomes their favorite cuisine. From the canned raviolis kids gobble up to pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo, tiramisu and cannoli, Italian recipes probably appeal to more people than any other type and is one of the easiest cuisines to duplicate in your home kitchen.
Nothing whets your guests’ appetites better than an antipasto platter. Antipasto, which translates to English as “before the meal,” can be plain or fancy and typically includes a selection of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and bread. Find a good Italian deli that carries a good selection of Italian salami and cheeses along with a variety of home-cured olives, roasted or pickled vegetables, and bread, breadsticks, and crackers. Arrange them on a platter and voila – you have a perfect opening course. Bruschetta is also a good Italian appetizer and can be simply topped with garlic, fresh tomato slices, and basil leaves or you can give it more flavor by adding marinated artichoke hearts or crumbled Italian sausage. Caprese salad made with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and fresh basil is an elegant starter course or, if you want a more casual opener, make homemade pizza and cut it into bite size pieces.
Although minestrone is the traditional Italian soup served at many restaurants, wedding soup is gaining in popularity. It makes an elegant presentation but is easy to prepare with homemade or store-bought chicken broth, spinach or kale, shredded chicken breast, tiny meatballs, and a couple of beaten eggs stirred in right before serving, with ample amounts of freshly grated Parmesan on top. Tortellini or gnocchi soup is a hearty first course and if you want to make soup the main dish, prepare a hearty cioppino with shrimp, crab, mussels and cod. Serve thick slices of crusty Italian bread with the soups to sop up all the goodness at the bottom of the bowl.
“Basta pasta!” means “Enough pasta!” in English but you rarely hear the phrase because pasta is so well loved…and many people just can’t get enough. Dried and fresh pasta is available in many shapes and sizes, either plain and or filled with meat or cheese mixtures to make tortellini and ravioli. It’s delicious simply dressed with melted butter, chopped Italian parsley, sliced, lightly sautéed garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper or tossed with traditional tomato based pasta sauce or a creamy cheese sauce such as Alfredo. Basil-based pesto sauces are tasty tossed with thin, strand pastas such as angel hair, cappellini, and vermicelli.
Lasagna, one of the most coveted Italian dishes, incorporates wide, flat pasta noodles into a baked Italian casserole dish with layers of sauce, cheese, and vegetables. For a similar dish that is easier to prepare, use short, hollow pasta to create a baked ziti casserole, bursting with the flavors of ricotta, fresh mozzarella, tomato pasta sauce, and mild or spicy Italian sausage. Stuffed pasta shells or manicotti are favorite casserole entrées made by filling large, hollow pasta shapes with a mixture of ricotta, spinach and your choice of meat, poultry, shrimp, or crab and topped with a rich béchamel sauce.
Besides conventional meatballs and meat-laden sauces, braciole is a family favorite. It’s a bit labor intensive but worth the time required to pound beef steaks into tenderness, stuff them with bacon, bread, cheese and herbs, and slowly braise them in a simple sauce until they are fork tender. Give a pork roast or leg of lamb Italian flair by marinating it in a lemon and olive mixture loaded with fresh Italian herbs such as basil and oregano, and a handful of fresh minced garlic. Chicken pairs exceptionally well with Italian herbs and cheeses as well as tomato- or caper-based sauces. You can have an elegant Italian meal in less than an hour when you make chicken Parmesan, chicken cacciatore, chicken piccata or chicken Marsala, all lovely served alongside your favorite pasta cooked al dente and topped with a dash of extra virgin olive oil, Parmesan ribbons, and a sparse sprinkling of dried red pepper flakes.
No matter how much savory Italian food you consume, there’s always room for an authentic Italian dessert or dolce. You can opt for crisp biscotti or anise-flavored pizzelle served with a tiny cup of espresso or indulge in tiramisu, a lovely mélange of layered ladyfingers or sponge cake soaked in espresso and Marsala, mascarpone cheese and chocolate. For a slightly lighter sweet ending to your meal, have a serving of zabaglione, a custard of egg yolks flavored with wine and brandy. Instead of conventional cheesecake, bake an Italian cheesecake with a ricotta rather than cream cheese base. Other good Italian desserts include cannoli, thin, crisp pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta cream, or gelato, a frozen dessert similar to ice cream but with less buttercream fat, both of which can be made at home or purchased at specialty Italian food stores.