Hot Appetizers

Appetizers are sizzling. I have never seen appetizers getting so much attention. Some restaurants are referring to them as “small plates,” but what we are dealing with here are, in fact, appetizers using a pseudonym.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on in Chicago when it comes to hot (as in popular) appetizers. For example, some of Chicago’s restaurants — La Madia, A Mano, Quartino and Osteria di Tramonto in Wheeling, a suburb of Chicago — are offering a veritable feast of choices that include a wide selection of salumi (sliced cured meats), some of which are made in house. Curing meats in house is not for everybody, but the alternative — buying quality cured meats — and serving them as appetizers must be looked into. Which cured meats should you consider? Soppressata (pressed pork), Finocchiona (fennel salame), mortadella, capocollo, salami Toscano, and prosciutto are some of the more popular choices. Offer a choice of , say, three different cured meats for a set price (or, if easier, price them individually). Arrange the meats in rows on a square plate and serve.

As basic as it gets with cured meats, even more basic are appetizers like roasted peppers dressed with garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and capers (as served at Quartino).

Fior de latte (fresh mozzarella) should not be overlooked either. Pair slices of fior de latte with slices of fresh tomatoes and a chiffonade of fresh basil. Drizzle this combination with extra-virgin olive oil and you have an appetizer (often referred to as Caprese salad) that is easy to make and hard to resist.

At La Madia I was served an appetizer of oven-roasted Nicoise olives. How simple is this: Put the olives (mixed olives for more interest) in aluminum foil, dress with herbs, garlic and olive oil and roast them in the oven until just heated through. Put the foil packet on a plate and bring it to the table. The server opens the packet for the customer. The aroma alone is enough to cause a stir.

Another easy-to-do appetizer, one that is getting hotter by the minute, is known as Pizza Fonduta. Simply put this is pizza fondue. Use your existing pizza sauce. Thicken it a bit by swirling in some ricotta cheese and a generous amount of grated parmesan. Now give it some heat. Serve it at the table in a dipping bowl along with a mini-loaf of Italian bread. The customer is instructed to tear off chunks of bread and scoop it into the sauce (in Italian this is known as “La Scarpetta”).

Into Wisconsin, Il Ritrovo in Sheboygan does an array of creative and delicious “Antipasti.” One that is particularly enjoyable is “Mozzarella Pizzaiola.” In this rendition, chef/owner Stefano Viglietti sautes a slab of fresh mozzarella and pairs it with a light tomato sauce, oregano and olives. Garlic rubbed toast is the luxurious accompaniment to this delicious appetizer.

Here are two “hot” appetizers. I selected two that use eggplant simply because I am of a mind that eggplant offers the chef a wide range of delicious possibilities. Also, eggplant is, to my way of eating, a vegetable that deserves more respect.

Caponata Crostini
Makes about 4 cups caponata (scale up in direct proportion)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced in 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon hot chili flakes
2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (to yield 4 cups)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
½ (One-half) teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup basic tomato sauce or pizza sauce
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 loaf Italian bread, sliced into 3/4-inch rounds and toasted on grill or in oven. While the rounds are still hot, rub each on one side only with a peeled clove of garlic. Set aside.
In a large 12 to 14-inch saute pan, over medium heat, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the onions and chili flakes and saute for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the onions are nicely softened. Add the eggplant, sugar and cinnamon, and continue to cook for 5 more minutes. Add the oregano, thyme, tomato sauce and balsamic vinegar. Bring the mixture to a boil.

Lower the heat and simmer the mixture for 6-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Serve the caponata spread out on the bread. Relative to the size of the rounds of bread, figure about 2-3 rounds per serving.

Eggplant Rollatini
Makes 18 rollatini

olive oil
all purpose flour
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from day old Italian bread
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
18 1/4- inch-thick eggplant slices cut lengthwise
12 ounces shredded part-skim mozzarella
1 ½ (one and one-half) cups ricotta cheese
3 cups marinara sauce

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly oil half-sheet pans and one large baking dish. Place flour in a shallow bowl. Place the eggs in second bowl. In a third bowl combine the breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle each eggplant slice with salt and pepper. Coat each slice with flour, then beaten egg, and finally breadcrumb mixture, pressing the breadcrumbs into the eggplant. Arrange eggplant slices in single layer on prepared sheet pan. Bake eggplant in batches until coating is golden, turning after 15 minutes, about 25 minutes total. Cool on sheet pans.

Mix mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese, and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese in medium bowl. Season filling with salt and pepper. Divide filling among eggplant slices (about 3 tablespoons per slice); spreading it evenly. Starting at one short end, roll up eggplant slices, enclosing filling. Arrange rolls, seam side down, in prepared baking dish. (Can be made a day ahead. Cover and chill.)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spoon marinara sauce over rolls; sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered until rollatini are heated through and mozzarella cheese melts, about 20-25 minutes. Paint the plate with warm marinara sauce, arrange two or three rolls on each plate. Serve at once.