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All Dishes 'Star' in Full-Scale Italian-Style Meal : Menu: The five courses, from antipasti to dolce , do not include a "main course"; all are about equal in importance.

June 21, 1990|DIANE DARROW and TOM MARESCA | Darrow and Maresca are food and wine writers who travel frequently to Italy. Their most recent book is "La Tavola Italiana." and

For most people who really like to eat, nothing is as much fun as dining Italian-style. Not only is each individual dish lively and colorful and bursting with flavor, but because of the way dishes are served, every dinner is a mini-adventure of pleasing contrasts.

A full-scale Italian meal consists of five courses: antipasti , primo , secondo , contorno and dolce . Not one of them is meant to be what Americans regard as a "main course"; rather, each is about equal in importance and interest. For the happy diner, that means there are five "star" dishes to look forward to, rather than just one. What could be better?

To illustrate how delightful this kind of dining can be, we've put together a menu that features one of our favorite Italian dishes as an example of each course. Naturally, you don't have to serve all five in a single meal. Two or three of the dishes will mix and match just as pleasurably. Quantities given in the recipes will serve four people in the complete "five-star" meal.

Antipasti come in endless varieties. They can be fish, meat, vegetable, bread, egg and cheese--alone or in combination. Crostini are popular. These are simply slices of good country bread, lightly toasted in the oven and spread with something tasty--sometimes chicken liver pate , or a mince of ripe tomato, fresh basil and a dollop of fragrant olive oil. Just a few crostini pique the appetite nicely at the beginning of the meal. Our example uses a savory spread of tuna and white beans, perked up with a garnish of minced sweet onion.

The primo is the course Americans recognize as being most "Italian." It can be pasta, risotto , gnocchi , a soup or even a small pizza. Pasta in all its fascinating shapes is probably the primo Italians most love, and they have an endless variety of sauces to serve with it.

This example is for spaghetti with a very quick-and-easy sauce of peppers, olives and a small amount of tomato. The sauce takes only 10 minutes to cook, and then the almost-cooked pasta is finished briefly in the sauce so it absorbs more flavor. (Done this way, the dish isn't swimming in sauce; most of the tomato "sinks in," leaving a juicy garnish of peppers and olives. In Italy, they like pasta more lightly dressed than Americans are accustomed to.)

The secondo in an Italian meal is most like our main course, but with all the other good things served before and after it, it's usually a smaller portion than we're used to. Quails are an ideal secondo . Two of the plump, tasty morsels are just the right size for a portion, and quails don't need any elaborate preparation. Our recipe simply bakes them with sage leaves and bacon. (They're even sweeter if you use pancetta , which is an unsmoked bacon available at Italian specialty shops.)

Contorni are the vegetable dishes that round out (contour) the secondo . They're sometimes served after the secondo , sometimes alongside, but almost never on the same plate--a clear indication of how important it is to Italians to keep flavors sharp and distinct. Our example, fresh peas braised with a touch of tomato, has a bright acidity that contrasts nicely with the succulence of the quails. It's a particularly good way to liven up peas that are a few days off the vine and no longer as sweet as fresh-picked ones.

Dolce , or dessert, is usually very simple in an Italian dinner. (Those elaborate cream pastries that Italian bakeries display are usually eaten as mid-morning or afternoon snacks, not with a meal.) Fresh fruit or a few cookies along with a cup of strong espresso coffee are generally enough.

Simple nut cakes are also very popular, such as our example of a hazelnut cake. Toasting the nuts in the oven intensifies their flavor, and for those who don't care for whipped cream topping, a dusting of powdered sugar works well.

No meal in Italy would be complete without wine. If you want to serve just one wine with the whole meal, try a relatively light-bodied and slightly acidic red: a young Chianti (Badia a Coltibuono, Berardenga Felsina, Castello di Gabbiano, Fossi, San Polo in Rosso, Santa Cristina, Villa Banfi) or a Barbera, especially a Barbera d'Alba (Conterno, Giacosa, Fenocchio, Pio Cesare, Prunotto, Ratti, Vietti) would work perfectly.

If you'd rather start with a white and go on to a more assertive red, try a white Lacryma Christi (Mastro-berardino) or Verdicchio (Fazi-Battaglia, Garofoli, Monte Schiavo, Umani Ronchi), followed by a Dolcetto (Bovio, Ceretto, Cogno, Conterno, Pio Cesare, Prunotto, Vietti) or a Rosso di Montalcino (Altesino, Barbi, Caparzo, Col d'Orcia, Il Poggione) or an Italian Merlot from Friuli.


(Tuscan Canapes of Tuna and Bean Pate)

1/2 cup canned white cannellini beans, drained

1/4 cup imported Italian tuna packed in olive oil (half of 6 1/2-ounce can)

1/2 to 3/4 cup minced mild onion

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