How to Throw the Perfect Italian Dinner Party
While I was at university I shared a house with an Italian. One summer, he warmly invited me and my fiancé to his family home in Brescia, just a short drive from the shimmering aquamarine stretches of Lake Garda. Despite my student-status, my time there was far from a wine-soaked bacchanalian affair, but an intimate peek into the generous elegance of a Northern-Italian family. Nestled deep into the mountains of Lumezzane, each evening the food was fresh and flavourful, and the table was unpretentiously dressed with a crisp cotton tablecloth and sweet-smelling flowers. It was a truly ambrosial experience, and naturally something of a paradise for any self-proclaimed foodie.
So, as the evenings draw longer and the wisteria begins to blossom, here is my guide to capturing the spirit of a Brescian dinner party at home, and how to bring a drop of northern Italian opulence into the sweet balmy nights of the British summer − è delizioso!
Take it Slow
There is an instinctive simplicity to an Italian dinner party, so leave the glitter and glamour for another day and embrace a more relaxed approach. A dinner party is a time to unwind, tell stories, and laugh with friends, so keep the dress code casual, and if the weather permits dine al fresco to let the sunshine speak for itself. Keep embellishments minimal with a neutral theme, and opt for wild flowers or sprigs of aromatic herbs like marjoram and oregano to adorn the dinner table. This is decidedly not the time for disposable plastic plates or cutlery: so use what you’ve already got at home, and if your tableware is a collection of mismatched dishes and silverware then all the better. For a final touch, light up the garden with candles to cast a resplendent, flattering glow on both your guests and food alike.
In Vino Veritas
Every well-seasoned host will tell you that drinks are just as important as food when pulling-off a successful dinner party. Serving aperitivos will kick the evening off to a winning start, and in keeping with the Northern Italian theme, Aperol spritz with a slice of orange is an honourable choice. At dinner copious glasses of wine is the obvious go-to, but consider serving alongside an equally tempting alcohol-free option. Homemade lemonade mixed with crushed mint leaves, raspberries and shaved ice is a fruity, welcome alternative to the usual lime cordial or acqua frizzante. Finally, for an unmistakably Italian taste, offer your guests an espresso after their meal. Biscotti anyone?
The Main Event
Sophia Loren famously professed “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” which is the perfect philosophy to embrace when planning an Italian feast. There are endless shapes and sauces to choose from but don’t be afraid to keep it traditional. Spaghetti al Pomodoro may sound like an inexcusably boring choice, but made with sun-ripened beef tomatoes, fragrant basil, and authentic parmigiana, this century-old combination will be unmatched in deliciousness. Serve with a fresh-baked focaccia to mop up the juices.
Make sure not to forget the Dolce, too. This Strudel di Mele recipe is a northern Italian specialty. Stemming from the regions time under Austrian rule, it’s made with apple and brandy, and is equal-parts sour and sweet. However, if the idea of kneading pastry makes you recoil in horror − don’t fret! To save you time and hassle, the home-made strudel dough has been swapped out for ready-to-roll phyllo.
Strudel di Mele
2 tablespoons of raisins
3 tablespoons of sugar
100g of butter
2 tablespoons of pine nuts or almonds
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
½ glass of brandy
5 sheets of ready-made phyllo pastry
1 egg yolk
Icing sugar to finish
Preheat the oven to 200°C and place the raisins in a bowl of water to soak for 15 minutes.
Peel and dice the apples into small cubes and add to a pan with 50g of butter. Once they begin to splutter add the sugar, raisins, and a splash of water. Gently simmer the mixture for 10 minutes, and then leave to cool.
Next, finely chop the nuts and add to the sauce, alongside the brandy and cinnamon.
To prepare the pastry, place the first sheet of phyllo onto a sheet of baking parchment and generously brush with melted butter. Repeat this process, layering the remaining sheets of pastry on top of one another.
Once ready, pour the filling into the middle of the pastry, and spread across the dough.
Delicately fold the pastry into a cigar-shape to encase the filling, and neatly tuck in the ends. Then lift the strudel onto a baking tray, using the paper to prevent the pastry breaking. Spread the surface with egg yolk, and bake for 30 mins.
Once baked allow to cool down, and generously dust with icing sugar. Enjoy with fresh whipped cream or warm custard.
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