Many cultures have a distinctive name for the first course of a meal: the French call it hors d’oeuvre, the Russians refer to it as Zakuska, the Spanish have their tapas, and modern English/American equivalents are called appetizers or starters. Overall, these small and tasty selections are meant to both begin the meal and stimulate the appetite.
While we may think of them as relatively modern inventions – especially by restaurants seeking to increase profit margins – the truth is that the history of these dishes stretches back centuries and even millennia. In order to understand more about this concept, we need to look at, perhaps, the oldest and most well-known of all first courses, the Italian antipasto.
Before becoming the now-recognizeable antipasto, our word originally entered the English language as simply antepast. But aside from the slight spelling variation, both words come directly from Latin and are translated as “before (ante/anti) the meal (pastus).”
Outside of the centuries old name, the actual concept of the dish is even older: by late Republican Rome (1st century BC), meals had already started to be separated into distinctive courses, with the term gustatio being used for the first course.
While the composition of it has, outside of Italy, been loosened to include things like fried calamari and spinach-artichoke dip, within Italy and in upscale Italian restaurants, antipasto remains true to its original composition. Typically, antipasto offerings will include prepared fish and cured meats, olives, peppers, cheeses, and vegetables in either oil or vinegar. As with most other aspects of Italian cuisine, the offerings vary from region to region, depending on product availability and speciality. For example, northern Italians would have local cured meats (like mortadella and prosciutto), mushrooms, and freshwater fish in their antipasti, while southern Italians would have meats like soppressata and saltwater fish in theirs.
For many of us who would assume that the term entered the English language in the last half-century along with the heightened interest in authentic Italian cuisine, it is a bit of a shock to discover that some form of this word has been used in English since 1590, with the first mention coming from a collection of pamphlets and stating: “The first course, or antepast as they call it..is some fine meat to urge them to have an appetite.”
By 1631, the word had grown to be used in non-dining application, with poet and cleric John Donne writing about greed in his Sermons that: “An Office is but an Antipast, it gets them an appetite to another Office.”
Though it would take another 300 years, the first noted transformation of antepast into our familiar antipasto occurred in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language.