3 Rustic Italian Appetizers to Fall in Love With

Last week, when I shared with you a traditional, rustic southern Italian recipe for Fave, Rape e Ciccoria, I hinted at my general dislike for most “Italian” food served in the states. Scratch that. I think I made it loud and clear. Big vats of pasta, dishes containing more cheese than vegetables and protein, and greasy breaded things are not my nature. Heck, even the last time I ventured into Boston’s North End, the local mecca of supposedly authentic Italian food, and waited over an hour in the cold for one of the most popular establishments, I was disappointed with my meal. It was described as layers of eggplant, veal, prosciutto and mozzarella in tomato sauce, but I don’t know that any of those things were actually present. All I could taste were breadcrumbs and oil.

Not surprisingly, on the rare occasion I do find myself in a typical American Italian restaurant, I’m not jumping for joy at the thought of any appetizers. First of all, most of these “chefs” are not experts in the art of frying so they take anything relatively good like a ravioli or calamari and fry it, and most of the flavor becomes lost behind the grease and battery coating. There’s usually a “fonduta” of some sort – honestly, would any Italian even know what that is? Bruschetta is a safe bet for fresh flavored lighter fair, but only when tomatoes and basil are in peak season (which is about two months out of twelve here in New England.)

Go big, or go home. That’s my general rule of thumb when it comes to anything food-related. I also abide by a rule of making things that I actually want to eat whenever bringing food somewhere. So when I was asked to bring appetizers to an Italian-themed get together, I decided to go straight to my most authentic Italian resource for some traditional – but likely unexpected – Italian fare. (This is not to say that all Americans have no idea what real Italian food is, but let’s face it: many do not.) That source, also mentioned in last week’s blog post, is a cookbook titled Flavors of Puglia, written by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. And it was given to me by a relative who hails from – where else, Puglia. Because of that and because none of the recipes resemble any old lasagna or chicken parm most Americans consider “Italian”, I have a lot of love for this book.

The three appetizers I brought – Grilled Breaded Mussels, Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Anchovies, Raisins and Capers, and Grilled Eggplant Rollatini – all received raves at the gathering. I like these recipes because they are comprised of fresh, simple ingredients. When blended together, they create a morsel of food that bursts with flavor without being too heavy. I think the folks from Puglia would agree with me that this is some of the best kind of food. As an added bonus, each of these recipes can be prepped ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling in the kitchen in front of your guests; instead you can leisurely nibble along with them.

The Mussels

Mussels are so easy and quick to prepare, and they’re usually pretty cheap. When served on the half shell, they make for a more elegant presentation. For these reasons, they’re a great choice to serve for company. These mussels, steamed in white wine and stuffed with a mixture of fresh parsely, bread crumbs, and tangy pecorino romano – were devoured at not one, but two parties at which I served them. If you’re looking for healthier choices, don’t be put off by the cheese and breadcrumbs: it’s really just a tidbit when divided up among all those luscious pieces of protein.

Grilled Breaded Mussels (Cozze Arracanate)
Adapted from Flavors of Puglia, Nancy Harmon Jenkins

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded*
dry white wine
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsely
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup bread crumbs
olive oil, for drizzling

Rinse the mussels under cold water and discard any that are cracked or open. Place the mussels in a large pot with enough white wine to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and turn the heat to high; cook for 3-4 minutes or until the mussels open. remove from heat, and transfer the mussels to a large bowl. Strain and reserve the liquid from the pan.

To prepare the bread crumb stuffing, place the remaining ingredients except for the olive oil in a small food processor and pulse together.

When the mussels are cool enough to handle, open each one and remove the meat from the shell. Discard one half of the shell, and place the other half on a baking sheet, with the mussel meat on top of it. Sprinkle the mussels with the bread crumb mixture. Drizzle with a bit of the reserved cooking liquid, and some olive oil.

The mussels can be prepared up until this point and left at room temperature for a couple hours; do not refrigerate or they will toughen.

When ready to serve, preheat the broiler and set oven rack to the top position. Broil the mussels for 5-8 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve immediately.

*All mussels that I have bought at the seafood counter in my regular grocery store have been almost thoroughly debearded already. This confused me the first time I ever bought mussels because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be pulling off. These mussels may have a few “loose threads” hanging out, so that’s what I yank out. I suppose it’s possible you may buy mussels that require more debearding, but don’t be alarmed if they look clean already – just move on to the next step!

The Peppers

It’s no secret I have a fetish for the combination of sweet and salty foods (kettle corn is one of my favorite snacks.) So when I read the ingredients for this recipe – plump, sweet raisins with salty capers and anchovies and savory pine nuts, I was immediately smitten. These did not disappoint. My only regret? I wish I’d thought to make them with mini sweet bell peppers instead of pepper strips. Next time!

Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Anchovies, Raisins and Capers (Peperoni Arrotolati)
Adapted from Flavors of Puglia, Nancy Harmon Jenkins

6-7 multi-colored bell peppers
3 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts*
3 tablespoons risins, soaked in warm water for about 15 minutes
8 oil-packed anchovy filets
2/3 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil

Begin by roasting the peppers. To do so, preheat the broiler. Wash the peppers and slice in half, removing the stem and ribs. Place the peppers, skin side-up, on a baking sheet and spray with canola or olive oil cooking spray. Place the sheet in the oven, on the top oven rack position. Broil the peppers for 5-10 minutes, until charred on all surfaces. Transfer the peppers to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside until cool enough to handle.

To prepare the filling, place the remaining ingredients in a small food processor and pulse to combine. Or, finely chop and mix together. Season to taste with pepper (it will likely not need any salt, because the anchovies are very salty.) Mix in the olive oil to form a loose paste.

To assemble, take a bell pepper half and carefully slip off the charred skin. Cut the pepper in half. Working with one strip at a time, place about one teaspoon of the filling mixture on the wide end, and roll up towards the pointed end. Secure with a toothpick and gently place into a lightly oiled baking dish. Repeat with remaining peppers. The peppers can be assembled a day or two ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.

Just before serving, bake the stuffed peppers in a preheated 425ºF oven for about 15 minutes, until warmed through and lightly toasted. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

*To toast pine nuts, place them in a dry skillet over low heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until lightly browned and fragrant.

The Eggplant

This recipe is an exception in that it does not hail from Flavors of Puglia, rather it is a rendition of my favorite way to make eggplant parmesan. For years I hated the dish and it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized why: in most kitchens around here, eggplant parmesan is prepared by liberally breading the eggplant and frying it in oil, thus masking the actual flavor of eggplant. The vegetable’s goodness is further diluted by layering it with copious amounts of cheese and typical rich spaghetti sauce. Grilling thin strips of eggplant, on the other hand, brings out its natural smoky flavor. Delicate slices of mozzarella cut fresh from the deli melt in harmoniously without overpowering, and a quickly simmered tomato sauce highlighted with fresh garlic and basil compliments perfectly. Again, simple ingredients; clean, fresh flavor; and as an added bonus it’s much lower in carbs. This is the only way I’ll eat eggplant parmesan now, and after trying this bite-size version, many of my friends and family are on board too. Don’t be afraid to make a really big batch of these rollatini; there’s no such thing as having too many. Possible outcomes are that they will all get eaten, even by the supposed non-eggplant-eaters. Or, you’ll have a few to nibble on from the fridge in the days to follow.(Because I am particularly obsessed with these rollatini and they’re my new favorite healthy-ish appetizer to share with friends, I’m sharing them with Amy for her Slightly Indulgent Tuesday Feature for January 25th over at Simply Sugar & Gluten Free.)

Grilled Eggplant Rollatini
Adapted from Gourmet, June 2007

2-3 large eggplant
kosher salt
canola or olive oil cooking spray*
1/3 – 1/2lb mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly (not fresh mozzarella)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
salt, to taste
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano Cheese

Slice the eggplant thinly, preferrably using a mandoline, to about 1/4″ thickness. Sprinkle both sides of each slice with salt, and place on a baking sheet, layering between paper towels. Set aside for at least an hour.

Preheat a grill to medium-low heat. Rinse the eggplant slices and pat dry, then spray each with cooking spray. Grill the eggplant slices for a few minutes on each side, until lightly browned. Set aside.

Fold a slice of cheese in half and break it apart. Place one half on a slice of eggplant and roll up, starting with the wider end. Secure with a toothpick and place in a lightly oiled baking dish. Repeat until remaining cheese and grilled eggplant slices are used up.

To make the sauce, begin by heating the olive oil over medium heat in a saute pan. Give the tomatoes, with their juices, a few pulses in a blender or food processor to break them up. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper to the saute pan, and cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes and salt, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the basil and cheese. Spread the sauce over the eggplant rollatini.

At this point the dish can be refrigerated for a day or two, until ready to serve. Preheat the oven to 425ºF, and bake for 10-15 minutes, until heated through. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

* I prefer to use cooking spray to prepare my eggplant slices for grilling, rather than brushing the pieces with olive oil. It’s lighter, of course, but more importantly, I just find it to be much neater and quicker. 

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43 Responses to “3 Rustic Italian Appetizers to Fall in Love With”

  1. 1

    Shanon — January 21, 2011 @ 4:23 pm Reply

    i feel ya…i know tons of people who say their favorite food is italian, but then they don't like: olives, mushrooms, seafood, and the list goes on. then you find out, what they really mean is that they like cheese pizza, fettucini alfredo and lasagna. and garlic bread. these apps are great! The roasted red pepper dish is especially interesting.

  2. 2

    That Girl — January 21, 2011 @ 5:04 pm Reply

    I'm allergic to mussels which is all the more shame since these look delicious.

  3. 3

    Joanne — January 21, 2011 @ 5:32 pm Reply

    Just like with Chinese food or Indian food, it shouldn't really be any surprise that the food served in American Italian restaurants is NOTHING like what is actually eaten in Italy. There, it is all about fresh flavors and ingredients. More sauce, less pasta. And total portion control.I love the peppers and eggplant! I need to introduce them to my parents and show them what REAL Italian food is all about!And if you want good Italian in Boston, my favorite place was Antonio's on Cambridge street. Super reasonably priced and super delicious.

  4. 4

    Dawn — January 21, 2011 @ 5:56 pm Reply

    This would be exactly why I avoid Italian restaurants like the plauge. And like Joanne said above, Chinese. There is actually a place here called "Chinese Takee Outee". How horrible is that?! This would be why I'm dying to actually GO to these places to see what the food is truly like.

  5. 5

    Kristy — January 21, 2011 @ 6:22 pm Reply

    Those roasted peppers look so yummy along with everything else! :)

  6. 6

    Shannon — January 21, 2011 @ 8:12 pm Reply

    yeah, food in italy is very different from the heavy, laden dishes here… love your renditions :) especially that eggplant!! i think i had similar feelings about eggplant parm

  7. 7

    innochkaskitchen — January 22, 2011 @ 5:30 pm Reply

    Yum, these all look so great! I'm thinking of throwing an italian-food themed graduation party for when my husband finishes is MBA program this spring, so these ideas are perfect!

  8. 8

    janet — January 23, 2011 @ 1:19 pm Reply

    Cara, I am completely with you on the Italian resto-fare. I hate most of it and I feel sick just thinking about it! Your appyslook fantastic – can't go wrong with roasted red peppers and capers. :)I went to a talk recently with the chef of a new artisinal resto and was blown away by his fresh food philosophy – as an example, he has been working on making his own white wine vinegar for the past year! He also served us a delicious marinated beef heart salad with triple-cream brie, grilled radicchio, and crispy sage.. with a drizzle of mosto cotto and good olive oil. I was weak in my knees it was so good… and then I vowed to try his resto the next time I am forced to eat out. Go big or stay at home, right? :)

  9. 9

    Kerstin — January 24, 2011 @ 1:29 am Reply

    What a spread! Love how healthy it is too – I'll take one of each please :)

  10. 10

    grace — January 24, 2011 @ 10:46 pm Reply

    i won't lie–i'd hang out by the eggplant and try to keep other people away with the sheer force of my willpower. :)

  11. 11

    Bridget — January 24, 2011 @ 10:48 pm Reply

    Hi Cara!So great to see you Saturday! Oh man, these all look incredible!! And seriously making me hungry! I think I am going to try out a couple or all three of these for some upcoming parties!!

  12. 12

    Bridget — January 25, 2011 @ 8:16 pm Reply

    I made the eggplant rollatini this weekend, and they were great! Even my husband's habit of burning everything he grills couldn't ruin them. I did find that they were best served with a knife and fork – and a slice of bread to mop up the extra sauce. So much for being low in carbs! (A few minor changes – I substituted provolone for the mozzarella, parsley for the basil, and parmesan for the pecorino, which I sprinkled over the top instead of mixing into the sauce.)

  13. 13

    Colleen — March 27, 2011 @ 3:07 am Reply

    Awesome post! Three delicious-looking and elegant appetizers, thanks for sharing!

  14. 14

    Bridget — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Hi Cara!So great to see you Saturday! Oh man, these all look incredible!! And seriously making me hungry! I think I am going to try out a couple or all three of these for some upcoming parties!!

  15. 15

    grace — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    i won't lie–i'd hang out by the eggplant and try to keep other people away with the sheer force of my willpower. :)

  16. 16

    grace — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    i won't lie–i'd hang out by the eggplant and try to keep other people away with the sheer force of my willpower. :)

  17. 17

    Kerstin — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    What a spread! Love how healthy it is too – I'll take one of each please :)

  18. 18

    Kerstin — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    What a spread! Love how healthy it is too – I'll take one of each please :)

  19. 19

    janet — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Cara, I am completely with you on the Italian resto-fare. I hate most of it and I feel sick just thinking about it! Your appyslook fantastic – can't go wrong with roasted red peppers and capers. :)I went to a talk recently with the chef of a new artisinal resto and was blown away by his fresh food philosophy – as an example, he has been working on making his own white wine vinegar for the past year! He also served us a delicious marinated beef heart salad with triple-cream brie, grilled radicchio, and crispy sage.. with a drizzle of mosto cotto and good olive oil. I was weak in my knees it was so good… and then I vowed to try his resto the next time I am forced to eat out. Go big or stay at home, right? :)

  20. 20

    janet — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Cara, I am completely with you on the Italian resto-fare. I hate most of it and I feel sick just thinking about it! Your appyslook fantastic – can't go wrong with roasted red peppers and capers. :)I went to a talk recently with the chef of a new artisinal resto and was blown away by his fresh food philosophy – as an example, he has been working on making his own white wine vinegar for the past year! He also served us a delicious marinated beef heart salad with triple-cream brie, grilled radicchio, and crispy sage.. with a drizzle of mosto cotto and good olive oil. I was weak in my knees it was so good… and then I vowed to try his resto the next time I am forced to eat out. Go big or stay at home, right? :)

  21. 21

    innochkaskitchen — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Yum, these all look so great! I'm thinking of throwing an italian-food themed graduation party for when my husband finishes is MBA program this spring, so these ideas are perfect!

  22. 22

    Shannon — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    yeah, food in italy is very different from the heavy, laden dishes here… love your renditions :) especially that eggplant!! i think i had similar feelings about eggplant parm

  23. 23

    Kristy — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Those roasted peppers look so yummy along with everything else! :)

  24. 24

    Dawn — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    This would be exactly why I avoid Italian restaurants like the plauge. And like Joanne said above, Chinese. There is actually a place here called "Chinese Takee Outee". How horrible is that?! This would be why I'm dying to actually GO to these places to see what the food is truly like.

  25. 25

    Dawn — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    This would be exactly why I avoid Italian restaurants like the plauge. And like Joanne said above, Chinese. There is actually a place here called "Chinese Takee Outee". How horrible is that?! This would be why I'm dying to actually GO to these places to see what the food is truly like.

  26. 26

    Joanne — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Just like with Chinese food or Indian food, it shouldn't really be any surprise that the food served in American Italian restaurants is NOTHING like what is actually eaten in Italy. There, it is all about fresh flavors and ingredients. More sauce, less pasta. And total portion control.I love the peppers and eggplant! I need to introduce them to my parents and show them what REAL Italian food is all about!And if you want good Italian in Boston, my favorite place was Antonio's on Cambridge street. Super reasonably priced and super delicious.

  27. 27

    Joanne — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Just like with Chinese food or Indian food, it shouldn't really be any surprise that the food served in American Italian restaurants is NOTHING like what is actually eaten in Italy. There, it is all about fresh flavors and ingredients. More sauce, less pasta. And total portion control.I love the peppers and eggplant! I need to introduce them to my parents and show them what REAL Italian food is all about!And if you want good Italian in Boston, my favorite place was Antonio's on Cambridge street. Super reasonably priced and super delicious.

  28. 28

    That Girl — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    I'm allergic to mussels which is all the more shame since these look delicious.

  29. 29

    Shanon — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    i feel ya…i know tons of people who say their favorite food is italian, but then they don't like: olives, mushrooms, seafood, and the list goes on. then you find out, what they really mean is that they like cheese pizza, fettucini alfredo and lasagna. and garlic bread. these apps are great! The roasted red pepper dish is especially interesting.

  30. 30

    Colleen — March 28, 2011 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Awesome post! Three delicious-looking and elegant appetizers, thanks for sharing!

  31. 31

    Bridget — March 28, 2011 @ 8:51 pm Reply

    I made the eggplant rollatini this weekend, and they were great! Even my husband's habit of burning everything he grills couldn't ruin them. I did find that they were best served with a knife and fork – and a slice of bread to mop up the extra sauce. So much for being low in carbs! (A few minor changes – I substituted provolone for the mozzarella, parsley for the basil, and parmesan for the pecorino, which I sprinkled over the top instead of mixing into the sauce.)

  32. 32

    Colleen — March 29, 2011 @ 2:04 am Reply

    Awesome post! Three delicious-looking and elegant appetizers, thanks for sharing!

  33. 33

    grace — March 29, 2011 @ 2:04 am Reply

    i won't lie–i'd hang out by the eggplant and try to keep other people away with the sheer force of my willpower. :)

  34. 34

    innochkaskitchen — March 29, 2011 @ 2:04 am Reply

    Yum, these all look so great! I'm thinking of throwing an italian-food themed graduation party for when my husband finishes is MBA program this spring, so these ideas are perfect!

  35. 35

    Kristy — March 29, 2011 @ 2:04 am Reply

    Those roasted peppers look so yummy along with everything else! :)

  36. 36

    That Girl — March 29, 2011 @ 2:04 am Reply

    I'm allergic to mussels which is all the more shame since these look delicious.

  37. 37

    That Girl — April 5, 2011 @ 1:15 am Reply

    I'm allergic to mussels which is all the more shame since these look delicious.

  38. 38

    Joanne — April 5, 2011 @ 1:15 am Reply

    Just like with Chinese food or Indian food, it shouldn't really be any surprise that the food served in American Italian restaurants is NOTHING like what is actually eaten in Italy. There, it is all about fresh flavors and ingredients. More sauce, less pasta. And total portion control.I love the peppers and eggplant! I need to introduce them to my parents and show them what REAL Italian food is all about!And if you want good Italian in Boston, my favorite place was Antonio's on Cambridge street. Super reasonably priced and super delicious.

  39. 39

    Kerstin — April 5, 2011 @ 1:15 am Reply

    What a spread! Love how healthy it is too – I'll take one of each please :)

  40. 40

    Shannon — April 5, 2011 @ 1:15 am Reply

    yeah, food in italy is very different from the heavy, laden dishes here… love your renditions :) especially that eggplant!! i think i had similar feelings about eggplant parm

  41. 41

    Joanne — April 5, 2011 @ 1:15 am Reply

    Just like with Chinese food or Indian food, it shouldn't really be any surprise that the food served in American Italian restaurants is NOTHING like what is actually eaten in Italy. There, it is all about fresh flavors and ingredients. More sauce, less pasta. And total portion control.I love the peppers and eggplant! I need to introduce them to my parents and show them what REAL Italian food is all about!And if you want good Italian in Boston, my favorite place was Antonio's on Cambridge street. Super reasonably priced and super delicious.

  42. 42

    Ana Maria da Costa — December 12, 2011 @ 9:17 am Reply

    So inviting…and so Italian!A  little advice: choose the smaller eggplants, as the bigger ones use to absorb more oil. The smaller, the better.

  43. 43

    Cara — December 12, 2011 @ 11:23 am Reply

    Thanks Ana, I agree! I like to splurge on the fancy small ones when my store has them.

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