For it to work, though, you've got to get beyond the obvious.
Mary Ann Esposito, the host of Public Television's long-running Ciao Italia cooking show and author of the recent Ciao Italia Slow and Easy cookbook, has plenty of tips for getting you there.
"I like to do an antipasti that is unexpected," she says. "Not carrot sticks, celery sticks and onion dip."
Some of her tips:
- Antipasti (Italian for "before the meal") should be a fork-only affair. This isn't a sit-down experience, so people will be milling about, eating and drinking. This means keeping it bite-size.
- Consider how foods will look and taste together. Go for a selection of contrasting flavors and colors, of temperature and texture; try to have hot and cold items, and soft and crunchy.
- Enhance offerings with garnishes. It isn't just a case of making food look pretty. Sprinkling items with chopped fresh herbs or crushed nuts (pine nuts are nice) adds flavor and texture.
- As you consider foods, opt for a few items with serving options. A simple spread of mortadella (Italian smoked sausage) pureed with mascarpone cheese can top crostini and be spooned into roasted red peppers.
- Look for items that can be prepared in advance and reheated. Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can be roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper, then reheated just before serving.
- Consider prepared items that can be doctored. Jars of pickled or roasted peppers can be stuffed with a blend of prosciutto and provolone cheese.
- Plan for a pound of meat (salami, sopressata, prosciutto and mortadella) per four people. Overall, plan to have eight to 10 hors d'oeuvres per person.
- If you need to transport warm antipasti to a party at somebody's home, wrap your dish in newspaper and towels, or heat a cast-iron pan, then wrap it in paper and set it under the dish.
Ms. Esposito offered the following simple recipes to consider for your next party.
- Parmesan Pennies (wafer-like crisps of Parmesan cheese and almond slivers): Combine equal parts of grated cheese and almonds. Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high, then drop 1 tablespoon of the cheese mixture into the pan. When the cheese melts and browns on the bottom, flip to brown the other side.
- Salami Panini (baked discs of puffed pastry, prosciutto and cheese): Thinly slice a roll of cheese and prosciutto. Arrange over a sheet of thawed puff pastry, then roll into a log. Cut the log into half-inch slices and bake until puffy and lightly browned.
- Timballini (mini towers of grains, salami and cheese): Cook wheat berries or other grain according to package directions, then mix with chopped salami, salt, pepper and grated Parmesan or pecorino. Press into conical molds (muffin tins work) and chill. When ready to serve, invert onto a serving platter.