If you’ve missed your travels to Italy this year, let me help you capture the essence of Italy at home with an Italian Dinner Party. With a little prepping and planning, you can easily create a special evening of delicious food and wine to share with family and friends. There might not be any sea views of beach sunsets, but with a little creativity, seasonal ingredients and a few accessories, you can inject some Italian magic into your life.
Follow these five simple steps and I guarantee you’ll be transported to your favorite destination in Italy for an evening.
Step One: The Cookbooks
The first step is to grab a stack of your favorite Italian cookbooks, as they promise the tastes and fragrant kitchen aromas of Italy.
If you don’t have a library of cookbooks, I suggest you start with The Italian Table by Elizabeth Minchilli or A Table in Venice by Skye McAlpine. Both of these books are full of recipes that are perfect for an Italian-themed dinner party, with photos and dishes guaranteed to let your mind wander away from suburbia at any time of year. Elizabeth’s book is especially useful because it’s categorized into a dozen fabulous menus with step-by-step instructions for recipe preparation, tableware inspiration and more.
Don’t worry if you are not ready to invest in any books, as there are plenty of free resources available online, too. Elizabeth shares lots of recipes on her website – one of my favorite’s is her spaghetti alle vongole. If you have a specific dish you’d like to recreate, try doing a search on Pinterest which is filled with enticing visuals and recipe cards. I made a lot of great semifreddi over the summer from recipes that I found on Pinterest.
Step Two: The Menu
The next step is to turn those recipes into a menu that works. Think back to some of your favorite meals in Italy. Why were they so special? What did you order? You might decide to explore the flavors of a particular region of Italy, perhaps stuffed pastas inspired by a trip to Bologna, or a lighter summer meal of prosciutto e melone reminiscent of dining out on the Amalfi Coast.
Working within your theme, and any given dietary requirements, start by creating a short list of all the recipes that excite you. For a dinner party I like to serve a primo, secondo, and a dolce. However, you could increase the number of courses if you are feeling adventurous, or start with a simple sharing platter of appetizers for something less formal. If you have too many ideas, you can easily whittle your list down by taking into account the time for preparation.
It’s also important to consider dishes that are complementary. You probably don’t want a starter and a main course that are both tomato-based. Likewise, if you are serving a rich and cheesy main course, then you should avoid serving a cheese-based dessert and opting for something lighter, like a crostata featuring seasonal fruit. The secret to creating a perfect menu comes down to embracing the flavors that you love and combining dishes to achieve balance and variety.
Step Three: Wine List
I love to start my evening with a cocktail – this is always fun and sets the scene beautifully. Prosecco is delightful on its own but also makes a great base for a simple aperitif: add pomegranate juice to make a Tintoretto or fresh peach purée for a Bellini. Alternatively, an Aperol Spritz is always a crowd pleaser. Just add a splash of Aperol, club soda and an orange slice and you’ll be transported to a Bacaro in Venice.
Flipping through a wine list is always an exciting part of a meal but since you won’t have a sommelier on hand to help you out, you need to create your own pairings… with Italian wine of course. Don’t panic – this is actually great fun.
Think back to past vacations and the wine regions you discovered while traveling through Italy. If your menu is focused on one region, it’s nice to select a wine from the same territory – otherwise, feel free to experiment. Some wines that I’ve enjoyed at my latest Italian dinner parties have been Lugana white wines from Lake Garda and rich Etna Rosso reds of Sicily. If you can support a local business and order wines from a nearby enoteca, that is ideal, otherwise you will be amazed what wine you can find and order through a quick internet search.
All great meals should finish with some dessert wine. Perhaps a half bottle of Moscato – a light dessert wine with a spritz that’s not too heavy at the end of the meal. If you really want to be indulgent, a glass of passito is rather wonderful with a rich dessert.
Step Four: Preparation
Preparation is the key to actually enjoying this dinner party that you are hosting! In order to fully enjoy a special meal, you need to pick a menu that allows you to prepare as much in advance as possible. Read through the recipes that interest you to make sure you know what is involved. There is nothing worse than running out of time because you didn’t read the recipe properly in advance and didn’t anticipate that step about leaving a dish in the fridge overnight!
I always follow a rule that two of the three courses should be made the day before, whether that’s a torta rustica that can be reheated in the oven, or a sauce that just needs to be tossed with freshly cooked pasta. Many desserts, like tiramisu, are better the longer they sit so keep this in mind when you’re planning your menu. Preparation also gives you time to make mistakes. If your meringue doesn’t hold its shape, or you burn the cake, there is plenty of breathing space to try again.
Step Five: The Table Setting
Now you’ve sorted your menu and the wine list, it’s time for some fun. The table setting is the other key ingredient to a dreamy meal. A beautifully set table creates a sense of occasion, and it’s definitely what you’d find in a trattoria in Italy.
I love decorating a table with ceramics collected over the years from Siracusa in Sicily and Polignano a Mare in Puglia. In the summer, I also pick flowers from my garden, or place a simple platter of lemons on the table to bring some nature to the arrangement. When selecting flowers, consider single bud vases which add a pop of color but are not so high that they hinder conversation at the table.
Finally, the warm glow of candlelight is the most atmospheric lighting you can create and so reminiscent of dinners in Italy. In order to create a similar ambiance, collect all the candles you have, and maybe some tea lights too, for some beautiful warm lighting.
An Italian dinner party can feel like being on holiday in the Bel Paese for a couple of hours. All the preparation and cooking is worth it to escape – if only for an evening. I hope these five simple steps inspire you to plan your own restaurant menu at home and turn a simple meal into a special occasion!
For more inspiration, visit the Lois Avery Journal.