Forget everything you ever learned about antipasto. Such as it should come before the meal, or it should be served hot or cold. Or it always includes a slice of salami, a chunk of provolone and an anchovy or two.
All that has changed.
Antipasti can now be the whole meal. They can be served at room temperature. Any food can go on the antipasto table: meat, cheese, fish, eggs, rice, beans, grains. And always lots and lots of vegetables.
"Antipasto is perfect for making ahead and serving to company," says Michele Scicolone, whose book "The Antipasto Table" (William Morrow and Co.; $18.95), is a collection of 200 antipasto recipes.
"The only differences between an Italian antipasto table and an American buffet," Ms. Scicolone adds, "is that the Italians would never include a pasta salad -- Italians never eat their pasta cold -- or a big cut of meat like a roast."
An antipasto table is the perfect solution for those people who are always watching their weight and others who have a big appetite, she says. Everyone can eat what they like and as much as they want.
"Antipasti are fast food in a way," says Julia Delle Croce, author of "Antipasti, the Little Dishes of Italy" (Chronicle; $18.95). "They are all very fast to make and very simple."
As more Italian women have joined the work force, they've sought foods that can be made in advance -- and antipasto lends itself to that.
"Antipasti are not only healthy, but they're versatile," says Carol Field, a writer on Italian food and culture whose book, "Italy in Small Bites" (William Morrow and Co.; $23), will soon be in bookstores. "Antipasti are so easy to make that people who don't know how to cook can make them. And you can take the same recipe and put it on grilled bread, or use it as a sauce for pasta, or put it in chicken broth and make a soup," she says. "Antipasto is Italian soul food, comforting and homey, not elaborate."
In Da Umberto restaurant in New York, the antipasto table sitting squarely in the center of the room displays more than two dozen vegetable antipasti. "About 75 percent of our customers order the antipasto, either as an appetizer or as a whole meal," says Sammy B, a waiter. "It looks so beautiful you can't resist it."
There are no rules for antipasti. But they all have one thing in common. Make sure you have crusty bread for mopping up the juices.