I’m a good planner. I like to set myself a goal and write up a plan for reaching it. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist, which made the first dinner parties I organized a bit fussy and very stressful for me. Experience has helped me sort out which tasks are key to a successful evening from those that are just making life harder.
A table set for thirteen for brunch at Mother’s Day 2010.
The five tips that drive my dinner party planning are:
1. Plan in advance
Decide how many people you want at your table. Your guest count will dictate what kind of dinner you’ll be preparing: 4 to 8 guests (plus hosts) is ideal for a seated meal. More guests can mean it’s easier to plan a cocktail party.
Send your invitations well in advance so as to make sure your friends will be there. Three weeks is a safe bet. If you’re inviting more than 6 people, send your invitations at least a month in advance.
When your guest list has been finalized, find out if any of your guests have allergies or food restrictions so that you can plan your menu accordingly.
2. Choose a theme and your recipes wisely
I like to choose a theme when I plan a dinner party. Whether it’s a cuisine (like Indian), a particular ingredient (all-pumpkin menu!) or a single type of dish for all courses (small bites, soups), setting a theme makes the evening more interesting.
It’s also wise to balance your meal: if some of your courses are very rich, end your meal with a lighter dessert. And vice versa.
The menu I printed for my Mom’s dinner party last April.
3. Pair cocktails and wines with your courses
Your guests may bring wine as a courtesy gift. Save them for later and serve cocktails and wines that pair up with your food perfectly. The internet, cooking and wine books and wine shop vendors are good sources of knowledge to consult when choosing your drinks.
4. Set up a beautiful table and ambiance
Taking just half an hour to set a beautiful and colorful table will put your guests in the right mood. The color palette, table linens and tableware can all be edited to fit the menu. Candles and fresh flowers are a plus.
Don’t forget the music: a good playlist will complement the best conversations and fill in the blanks when your guests are busy eating.
Candlelight and flowers make a table pretty.
5. Spend time with your guests
The last but most important advice of all: your guests won’t be happy if they see you scrambling and running around all the time instead of being with them. If you plan your menu well, with the right balance of dishes you can make in advance, you’ll be able to enjoy your meal, not just serve it. I prefer keeping my guests outside the kitchen, but don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
My Roman Menu
I’m writing this post from a small studio in the heart of Trastevere, Rome. My Italian kitchen is minuscule and ill-equipped, my table seats two people and my friends are thousands of kilometers away. Instead of hosting my dinner party right away, I decided to scour Rome to taste the best local dishes and to book a market tour to find the most authentic ingredients to bring back home, when I will invite my friends and cook them the tastiest Roman meal they ever had.
The view from my Roman apartment, in Trastevere.
La Cucina Romana is defined by fresh and seasonal ingredients cooked simply, without fuss. My guide for the market tour, Eleonora, is a foodie, blogger and travel consultant and she has been a goldmine of information. I was lucky enough to spend the whole day with her, touring a market, enjoying countless tastings and visiting specialty shops around the historic center.
With Eleonora’s advice, and my own research tastings in Roman restaurants, I’ve written my menu. Not all courses are originally Roman, but they are all staples here, and the way the meal will be served is typically Italian.
Notes about my menu:
Antipasti platter: I bought everything for my platter at a fantastic Testaccio gourmet store called Volpetti. It is socked with the best cured meats, cheeses and condiments Italy has to offer. Italians go there when they want to buy something extra-special. The staff is extremely helpful and allowed me to taste more than a dozen products before I chose what I wanted to buy.
At Volpetti: one of the brother-owners, the incredible array of salami to choose (and taste) from.
Left: the special fig “salami” made of fig pulp pressed with spices, nuts and other dried fruits; right: oven-roasted figs (no sugar added!).
Bruschetta & crostini: Toasted bread seasoned with garlic, olive oil and sea salt is a classic throughout Italy. To try something new, I will also make Eleonora’s Mortadella Spread.
Primi Piatti: Pasta is always served before the main course in Italy. Cacio e pepe and Amatriciana (tomato with pancetta) are two classic pasta dishes that are found on almost every Roman menu.
Instead of pancetta in my Amatriciana sauce, I will use guanciale, a special Italian cured bacon made from pig cheeks. A generous piece of guanciale was given to me (yes, for free!) by a butcher we visited on the market tour. It’s like that in Italy: when you’re loyal to your merchants (my guide has been visiting this butcher for many years), they thank you.
The friendly (and rather stylish) butcher in Testaccio.
The luscious piece of Guanciale that was so generously given to me by the butcher.
A plate of creamy Cacio e Pepe.
Secondi Piatti: Involtini alla Romana is a popular dish in Rome, and I’ve tasted a beef-based version at the very good Da Lucia restaurant in Trastevere. It is a dish that looks fancy but can be prepared in advance.
Contorti: In Italy, the meat and fish courses are served on their own and you have to order sides separately. They are most often very simple, like a salad or a plate of sautéed vegetables.
Fresh vegetables at Rome’s Testaccio Market.
In season zucchini sold with their flowers, which can be stuffed with mozzarella and fried (a very popular snack in Rome).
Dolce: Romans don’t have a heavy hand on sweets, and dinner often ends with fresh fruits or a simple gelato. My gelato is inspired by La Gelateria Del Teatro, where I first saw the luscious red wine and chocolate combination.
La Gelateria Del Teatro in the center of Rome.
The array of chocolate- and milk-based gelati at La Gelateria Del Teatro.
My suitcase is filled with premium-quality products, my heart with souvenirs from Rome and my mind is already with my friends, sharing this wonderful meal.
This is my entry to Project Food Blog 2010 Challenge #3. If you liked this post, click here to vote for me. Voting is open from Oct. 4th through Oct. 7th. A big thank you to all who voted for me in the first and second challenges!