I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is a cell phone app that lets you find select appetizers in some restaurants. Appetizers are the hot ticket in restaurants. Owner/operators have learned (what took so long?) that appetizers are the calling card that announces the rest of the menu, and that appetizers can be real money makers. I point to fried calamari as one example. Not too many years ago, squid was looked upon as nothing more than fish bait. Today, fried calamari (and grilled calamari as well) is one of the most ordered appetizers in restaurants (and not only Italian restaurants).
The next hottest appetizer idea to surface in the past few years has been the salumeria –– a selection of salumi (Italian cold cuts), namely, slices of capocollo, mortadella, Genoa salami, prosciutto and so forth. Dress up the platter with some olives, roasted red peppers, giradiniera, etc. and you have a “wow!” factor that is hard to beat. Don’t confuse a salumeria selection with that appetizer known as the antipasto platter. I would like to think you could kick it up a notch or two beyond that (call it “antipasto misto”).
Take a similar approach with cheeses in a “Formaggi Italiana.” Arrange a platter with various cheeses that have been cut into slices, triangles or strips (Anything except those party cube cuts). There is a wealth of cheeses to draw from: provolone, mozzarella, chunks of Parmesan and Romano, slices of Asiago and fontina. Dress up the platter or plate with grapes and a chiffonade of radicchio and you have an appetizer that will add taste and quality to your restaurant’s name.
Appetizers can be as broad and complex as the salumeria or cheese platters or as simple and interesting as a selection of olives, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon and rosemary. And to push the flavor profile up, wrap the olives and herbs in foil, give them some oven heat and serve warm.
I say build a better appetizer and the customers will come. OK, so in the past few years, the idea of listing a group of food on the menu as “small plates” came into play. Small plates are just another name for appetizers, and you can do with that what makes sense for you to do. Here are a few more ideas to get your appetizers a lot more appetizing.
Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms
Yield: 8 servings (3 mushrooms per serving)
24 large white domestic mushrooms, stems removed, caps brushed with a damp paper towel, stems trimmed and reserved
2 teaspoons olive oil
¾ pound bulk sweet Italian sausage
2 cloves garlic, crushed Stems from the mushrooms, chopped
½ cup chopped onion
4 large slices Italian or French bread, coarsely chopped
¼ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 cup (about) shredded mozzarella
In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage. Cook and stir and break the sausage into small crumbles. Add the garlic, the chopped mushroom stems and the onion. Cook and stir until the sausage has lost any trace of pink. Drain excess oil from the pan. Add the bread and the Parmesan cheese. Cook and stir until the bread is combined with the sausage. If the mixture appears to be too dry (think moist stuffing you would use with a turkey) at this point, add some water or chicken broth. Let the stuffing cool. (Recipe can be made to this point and held. Finish to order.)
Fill each cap with some of the stuffing mixture. Arrange the caps on a baking sheet. Sprinkle some mozzarella over the stuffing. Bake in a hot (450 F) oven until the caps soften and are tender and the cheese has melted. Serve.
You can list these on your menu to order in groups of 3, 6, 9, 12, relative to the number of guests. A party of one might order three, a party of two would order six and so on. Keep in mind that the bun on each slider is small. Families with kids love the slider idea, so this is a winner you can run with. If making your own meatballs is too much to deal with, you can order pre-made and precooked meatballs from any number of quality purveyors.
All of this recipe can be prepped well ahead. Make the meatballs and the sauce. Keep chilled and covered until ready to use.
Yield: 18 meatballs or 6 servings (3 to a serving)
¾ pound ground beef
¾ pound ground pork
½ cup panko
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
4 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
1 Extra-large egg
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
In a large mixing bowl, combine the beef, pork, panko, fennel, Romano, egg, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly to combine. Wet your hands a little and form the meat mixture into balls, about 1½ inches around. Then using your palm, press down gently on each of the balls to flatten them slightly (this makes it easier for them to stay in the bun).
To Finish: 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 tablespoons olive oil 4 cups pizza sauce or all-purpose ground tomatoes 18 small rolls (mini-rolls used for sliders), split horizontally
In a large sauté pan, warm the oil mixture over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Working in batches, if necessary, fry the meatballs, turning them frequently, until they are browned and cooked through. Drain excess fat from the pan.
At this point you might have to transfer the meatballs to a large pot. Add the tomatoes to the meatballs in the pot. Add seasonings –– basil, oregano –– if needed and bring the pot to a simmer. All of this can be prepped early in the day for lunch and dinner service.
To order, open the roll, pluck a meatball and some sauce from the pot and slip it into the roll. Sprinkle some grated Romano or Parmesan cheese over the meatball. Add a touch more sauce if necessary. Serve with a garnish of olives or giardiniera.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.