I just got home from a blissful week in Italy. Every time I go, I learn something new about food. This time, I got familiar with Italian cocktail food. I was struck by the simple and elegant snacks that are standard fare before dinner is served. In fact, the array of snacks in Italy is so impressive that you could make a meal out of them.
One of the first things I noticed on my trip is that Italians love potato chips. Everywhere in Italy, whether it’s a fancy hotel, a country restaurant, or an outdoor café, thin, crisp, fresh, potato chips are cocktail fare, served even with fine champagne. Maybe it’s because Italy is so enchanting and lush, but somehow potato chips seem delicate and refined when you’re looking out at cypress trees or 1,000-year-old churches, and everyone around you is speaking Italian. Potato chips are a must for my next gathering.
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I was looking forward to Italy’s amazing olives and cheese, and I was not disappointed. What could possibly be better than crisp green Cerignola olives, or nutty brown Gaeta olives? There are olive groves everywhere; in the middle of the city of Florence, as well as on the grounds of an upscale hotel in the hills outside Florence and surrounding an ancient castle in the countryside of Tuscany. Talk about eating locally!
Although I don’t eat a lot cheese at home, it’s a key element of Italian food, and when you’re served locally made provolone, Parmigiana-Reggiana, and Asiago along with a deep red glass of Montepulciano or Brunello wine, there’s no sense in resisting the umami explosion that takes place in your mouth when the fat and acid come together.
In Bologna, tasty bar snacks are part of the cocktail hour in this intellectual city that’s known for its excellent food. Sitting at an outdoor café in a plaza surrounded by Italian families, office workers, and students, our Campari and sodas were accompanied by an assortment of baguette slices topped with roasted eggplant, tomatoes, shaved carrots and zucchini, and roasted mushrooms. Full enough after cocktails, that was probably the one night of the trip where I didn’t eat a huge meal at night, and my waistband thanked me for it in the morning.
Here are some ideas for what to serve at your Italian-inspired gathering. Most of these can be found at a good Italian deli, or a gourmet food store:
- Potato chips
- Diced Italian cheeses like provolone, fresh mozzarella, Bel Paese, asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and young pecorino Romano.
- Baguette slices topped with roasted or marinated vegetables
- Toasted hazelnuts
- Caper berries
- Sundried tomatoes in olive oil
- Thinly sliced prosciutto
- Artichoke hearts in olive oil
- Pasta salad with pesto sauce
- Fresh figs