Italian food is about a lot more then just ingredients. When people gather to eat in Italy it is not just to settle a hunger or feed an appetite – it’s about celebrating life, friends, family, and culture. People come together to relax, listen to music, drink wine, and enjoy life. And there is no better way to capture the Italian zest for life then by re-creating a rustic Italian dinner party of your own.
Below are some easy tips to engage your senses, tease your tastes, and create the laid-back Italian dining experience that everyone will enjoy.
Primo – Decorazione
The first thing to do before you dive into cuisine is recreate an Italian setting as best you can. This can be achieved easily by adding a few elements into your home which capture the essence of Italy.
Decide on the mood and setting for the event. If you have an afternoon party and can be outside, invite guests outdoors on your patio or in your backyard. If weather does not allow that, or you have no outdoor space, set the party up inside and open windows and let the natural light come in. Make sure and create the serenity of dining in a Tuscan villa, or in an open air Bistro.
If you choose a night time party, recreate the romance of Italy by adding large pillar candles or tapers around your table or social space. Use floating candles and place them in a bowl of water as a centerpiece. If weather permits, have drinks outside and dinner indoors. Keep is casual and make sure and have comfortable spaces where people can relax and melt into scene.
Bring in fresh flowers and herbs. Sunflowers are native to Tuscany and provide great color and feeling to a room. Plant herbs in small pots and place them on the table or around the room. Or, line up bunches of dried herbs in the center of your table to bring in the flavors and aromas of the cuisine.
Choose napkins, placemats, or tablecloths which capture the earthy colors of Italy. Move away from the stereotype of red gingham and embrace colors like terra cotta, Tuscan gold, stucco, eggplant, sage green, olive, and poppy red. Everything does not need to match – in fact, mixing up designs and colors will enhance the setting visually. Floral prints are common in Italy and you can easily find re-creations in most home stores and shops.
Do not pull out fancy wine glasses for the event. Most people in Italy enjoy wine in short juice tumblers. These are inexpensive and easy to store, and they once again create a rustic feel for the guests. They are also not easily broken!
Decide on your music. Nothing says Italian more then opera and even if you know nothing about it – go pick up a CD of Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini. Or, stick with the classics like Luciano Pavarotti or the 3 Tenors. Or, go online and listen to an Italian radio station on your computer. Music is easily accessible and completely changes the feel of a party.
Secondo – La Cucina Casalinga
“La Cucina Casalinga” translates to “home cooking,” and that is what dining Italian is all about. Deciding a menu should be casual and straightforward because Italian cooking is all about simplicity. The menu should be approachable and fairly easy and catered to the crowd’s enjoyment.
Begin the party by always offering your guests a drink. You should have open bottles of wine sitting on the table when they arrive, so that people can feel conformable serving themselves. You can even set up a wine bar where your guests can sample Italian varietals. Or offer Grappa as an aperitif. Make sure everyone has something to drink when they are waiting for the food to come out. There is nothing worse then an empty handed guest.
Antipasto is the Italian first course and it should be simple, yet flavorful. Prosciutto is a great option, as it is easy to find and is an Italian staple. Prosciutto is cured pork leg which is aged for normally over 10 months. The meat has a rich and salty flavor and an elegant silky texture. “Prosciutto di Parma”, which means “ham from Parma”, is the most common form. Prosciutto pairs beautifully with sweet fruit like melon or pear, and for an easy antipasto, wrap prosciutto around a slice of melon and add a spring of fresh mint.
Olives are also a great option as they are delicious to eat – and placing them in bowls around the party will contribute to the atmosphere. Some good Italian olives are Cerignola which can be green or black and are very large and sweet in flavor. Gaeta olives are also from Italy and are small black olives which burst with great salty flavor. Put out toothpicks and a pit bowl and everyone will be happy with the result.
Secondi Piatti: Entrees
Italians normally have a “primi piatti” or “first course” of soup, pasta, or rice before the “secondi piatti” or entree. The secondi piatti is normally a meat or fish dish and is typically small because of the “primi piatti”, but when cooking for a crowd, it’s best to keep it simple.
If you’re not too confident of a cook, homemade pizza is an excellent choice. Most places sell pizza dough already made and all you have to do is add the toppings and cook. You can choose pesto, tomato, or alfredo sauce for the pizza and play with tastes. You can also throw the pizza on the grill and give it a smoky flavor.
Another option is pasta – which has a constant presence in the Italian kitchen and pantry. Although most people think that all pasta in Italy is made fresh, the truth is that many homes used dried pasta. Fresh pasta is normally used in stuffed pasta dishes like ravioli or cannelloni. You can choose what kind of topping you want, the most common being tomato or cream – and both are easy to find and also not hard to make. If you want to really capture Italy, make a pesto sauce. Basil is the heart of pesto and the northwestern region of Liguria in Italy is the home of pesto. The basil, garlic, pine buts and olive oil combine to create greatness and will leave your guests full and content.
Top all dishes with fresh parmigiano-reggiano or crushed black pepper.
In Italy, salads are served after the final course. This is because salad cleanses the palate before the desert course and is believed to settle your stomach. Salad is also easy to make and inexpensive, so it will really impress your guests to mix it up and re-arrange the typical order of food courses.
Desserts or dolci are the conclusion to a beautiful meal. Often a typical Italian meal will be followed by a fresh bowl of fruit, but on a special occasion, a little sugar is offered. For entertaining you only need to remember one thing: Tiramisu. Tiramisu is easy to find and is absolutely delicious. Serve it with coffee, usually an espresso, and your guests will be delighted.
Present your guests with small bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar as a party favor – or give away the sunflowers at the end of the night. You might also want to print out the recipes of what you made, just in case anyone wants to re-create it for their friends and family. The most important thing is for your guests to leave happy, full, and wanting to come back for another rustic Italian party.