When the meal before the meal shines

July 9, 2010

The tradition is especially strong at one local restaurant.

It only makes sense that a restaurant called Anteprima, loosely translated as "before the first course," would offer a stellar assortment of antipasti. The quaint, neighborhood Italian joint avoids the cliches like fried calamari and cheesy bruschetta and instead focuses its efforts on a wide range of vegetarian snacks.

You could call them starters, or appetizers, but in Italy, they are simply known as antipasti. Translated literally as "before the meal," these tiny plates of traditional Italian snacks have been improving over the past few years, getting a bit more creative. At Anteprima, in Andersonville, they've kept their antipasti simple, but they've also moved past the predictable zucchini and olives.

"It's pretty much using the ingredients at their prime and do the least amount to them as possible," said Anteprima's chef, Carlos Ysaguirre.

There are roughly 18 antipasti options on Anteprima's menu, most priced under ten bucks. Consider four that cost just $4: eggplant caponata has a Sicilian hook with pine nuts, briny capers and olives, but the cannelini beans are also noteworthy: cured soppresata mingles with vibrant swiss chard and red onions. The dish gets a simple dressing of red wine vinegar and olive oil. That's it.

Wheatberries offer a neutral canvas that is both nutty and wholesome; add snap peas and fresh mint, along with crushed pistachios and chopped spring onions for color and crunch, and all you need to do is dress it with a little bit of fresh lemon juice and olive oil for a seasonal starter. Broccoli gets a shower of toasted almonds and pickled turnips, for a starter that combines great texture with contrasting colors. It all goes back to the chef's philosophy, which isn't all that groundbreaking.

"Just let the vegetable shine, or the grain, or the legume shine for itself," Ysaguirre said.

Other highlights from their antipasti menu include grilled octopus or shrimp, chicken liver crostini, or even tripe with tomatoes and fried eggs.

5316 N. Clark St.

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