Italian cuisine is all about having fun and testing the boundaries of flavor, and few appetizers give you as much foodie freedom as bruschetta. Veggie, meaty, sweet or savory, bruschetta covers your cravings, and one simple ingredient ties the variations together: toasted bread. Grilled ciabatta, fresh Italian and fire-roasted French, to name a few, all work here. After toasting the bread, set the flavor foundation by rubbing the cut surface of a halved head of garlic on one side of each slice and lightly drizzling it with olive oil.
Sun-Dried Tomato "Tartare"
A whimsical visual play on steak tartare, grilled bruschetta with sun-dried tomatoes marries sweet and sour with a drizzle of creamy egg yolk. Separate the yolks from a few pasteurized eggs and set them aside. Rough chop oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes and mix them with freshly chopped basil, minced shallots and rinsed capers. Top the toast with a heaping spoonful of tomato tartare and finish with a drizzle of egg yolk on top.
Fennel and Fallawater
A bejeweling of cranberries and a thin layer of creamy, walnut-yogurt sauce adds a shy sweetness that make this apple and fennel bruschetta work as an appetizer or dessert. Mix 3 parts yogurt and 1 part mayonnaise with shaved fennel and diced Fallawater apples; if you can't find Fallawaters, use Granny Smiths. Stir in crushed walnuts and dried cranberries and chill the salad in the refrigerator. Top the toast with the fennel-apple salad and garnish with freshly chopped mint. Nix the garlic when making this bruschetta.
Piquant Peanut and Cabbage Slaw
Vinegary-sweet slaw with dry-roasted peanuts adds a welcome dose of crunch to grilled, sauteed or broiled bruschetta toast. Mix equal parts shredded purple cabbage, shredded Savoy cabbage, sliced shallots and grated carrots with a generous pinch each of salt, sugar and chili flakes. Bring equal parts water and white vinegar to a boil and pour it over the vegetables until barely covered; set a plate on the vegetables to keep them submerged. Chill the slaw for 1 hour in the refrigerator after it cools. Mix dry-roasted peanuts in the slaw and mound it on the toast. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil.
Beef Carpaccio with Parmesan and Balsamic
Beef carpaccio with Parmesan, arugula and balsamic is classic Italian all the way through. Slice rare roast beef to the thinness of a credit card and top each piece of toast with 1 or 2 folded slices. Layer arugula leaves on the beef and drizzle lightly with olive oil; top the arugula with shaved Parmesan and anoint each bruschetta with a drizzle of thick, rich balsamic vinegar.
Caramelized Pears and Gorgonzola
The sweetness of caramelized pears and the complexity of Gorgonzola meld seamlessly when married with a touch of honey and lemon balm. Heat a few tablespoons of butter and a generous spoonful of brown sugar in a saute pan over medium heat until nutty and aromatic. Add 1/4-inch-thick slices of Bosc or Anjou pears and saute them until caramelized and soft, stirring and turning frequently. Layer the caramelized pears on the toasted bread and add a few crumbles of Gorgonzola to each. Spoon a light drizzle of honey on each bruschetta and finish with a sprinkle of freshly chopped lemon balm. Hold the garlic on this bruschetta, too.
Prosciutto and Oven-Roasted Figs
When brought together on a crisp, toasted slice of Italian country bread, prosciutto and figs seem more like soul mates than a bruschetta breakthrough. Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and trim off the stems from each fig. Slice the figs in half lengthwise and coat them with brown sugar, a touch of honey and, if desired, a fruit liqueur. Roast the figs until soft and set them aside. Top each piece of toast with a slice or two of prosciutto. Spoon one roasted fig on each bruschetta and garnish with a thin shave of Parmesan. Finish with a drizzle the figs' pan juices on top. Don't rub the toast with garlic when making prosciutto-and-fig bruschetta.
Tomato-basil ceviche combines traditional bruschetta flavors with an unctuous dose of umami from marinated sea bass. Mix 1/4-inch slices of sea bass fillets, diced plum tomatoes, sliced shallots and chopped basil with enough lemon juice to coat and a pinch of salt. Add a pinch of chili flakes if you like a little heat. Marinate the ceviche in the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes before topping the toast with it. Finish each bruschetta with a drizzle of olive oil.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises cooking beef and seafood to 145 Fahrenheit. Pregnant or nursing women, children and the elderly shouldn't eat beef or seafood cooked to below 145 F.