The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

So You Want to Throw an Italian Dinner Party

Themed dinner parties can be fun. An Italian dinner party can be a real blast because there is so much you can do with the concept. But doing it right involves a lot more than just throwing a plate of spaghetti and some plastic grapes onto a table covered with a red checkered tablecloth.

In today's hectic, fast-paced society, even fun and food loving Italians have scaled back somewhat on the scope and size of their daily meals. Today's everyday menu usually consists of a first course, a second course, a side dish and coffee. New and notable in Italian cuisine is the "one dish" meal or "all-in-one" course that would have been unheard of in generations past, but reflects the contemporary pace of modern life. However, every now and then Italians still pull out all the stops and go in for preparing and serving a big traditional meal. This is particularly so for holidays, weddings, and other special occasions. An understanding of what constitutes a traditional Italian meal is essential in planning your big dinner party.

The generic term for a meal in Italian is pasto. However, specific meals do have specific names. The morning meal – what we call “breakfast” - is the prima colazione. Don't expect plates overfilled with bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, muffins, and the usual full English breakfast fare. The prima colazione is a light meal, usually consisting of coffee or tea and bread or pastries.

In days past, a light lunch – or pranzo – was eaten around noon and the main meal – cena or “dinner” – was served somewhere between seven and eight p.m. Nowadays, the trend is toward the midday meal being the “main” meal with a lighter meal served in the evening.

And then there's the big meal – il pasto abbondante. The one where nonna really shows her stuff.

Traditionally, big Italian meals are structured in a particular order. The various courses, or portate, are very important to the overall organization of the meal. Usually, meals consist of no less than three or four courses, but sometimes they can stretch to as many as six or eight, depending upon the occasion. There are no real “rules” as to what goes into these courses. The beautiful simplicity of Italian food translates into a degree of flexibility in the content.

But for the purpose of your big dinner party, the traditional ordered courses are as follows:

The antipasto, or "before meal" course, is technically the first course. It is what Americans would call the “appetizer” or “starter” course. Antipasti can be hot or cold, simple or elaborate, sometimes representing a feast in and of themselves. Various crostini and bruschette are served as antipasti, as are salami, anchovies, calamari and dozens of other tasty meat, fish, egg, and vegetable preparations. And there are wonderful fried creations, like arancini or frico, as well as some great dips and sauces. An aperitivo such as Campari frequently accompanies the antipasto course.

Don't be confused, but the second course is called the first course – il primo portata, primo piatto or simply primo. This course usually consists of a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup. The key here is portion control. The whole abbondanza thing is largely a marketing tool for selling American spaghetti sauce. The primi you'll find served at most authentic Italian functions are usually plated to resemble what most Americans would consider a child's portion. Don't overload. There's lots more to come.

The piatto di mezzo, secondo piatto, or secondo, follows next. This "second course" is actually what would pass for the main dish at an American table, and is usually poultry, fish or meat. Regional variances dictate the type of meat served. Veal, pork and chicken are the most commonly used meats in the North. Locally caught fish is popular along the coasts and on the islands. Wild game is still widely used in some areas. Beef, once very non-traditional, has become more popular since World War II.

The next course is called the contorno. The word is a conjugation of the verb contornare, which means “to surround” or “to encircle.” The contorno course consists of what Americans would consider to be "side dishes," usually of cooked vegetables. Differing from American service, a salad is considered a contorno and is generally served along with the main course rather than preceding it.

Italians divide the conclusion of the meal into several distinct courses. The first dessert course is the formaggio e frutta course, literally "cheese and fruit." The two are usually served together.

The dolce is what we would consider to be the true dessert course. Rich, heavy desserts in the French tradition are not the usual fare. The dolce course is generally made up of fairly simple cakes or cookies, although some very grand sweet creations, such as tiramisu, are not uncommon.

Coffee or espresso is considered a course in and of itself - the "caffe."

Finally comes the digestivo. This course is a service of liquors or liqueurs such as grappa, amaro or limoncello. It is sometimes referred to as ammazzacaffe - "coffee killer."

And of course, wine is the beverage of choice at the Italian table.

Continuing the theme – and speaking of the Italian table – red checkered tablecloths and wine bottle candles are the standard contributions to the general ambiance, but they are actually kind of kitschy. Italians are like anybody else; they bring out the white linens and the good tableware for special occasions. It depends, I suppose, on whether you want your party theme to be authentic or stereotypical.

Same applies to d├ęcor. Italian flags, plastic grapes, and red, white and green stuff everywhere will only succeed in making your party room look like an imitation of a cheap 1970s Italian restaurant or pizza parlor. Cute? Maybe. Authentic? Not so much.

I read about somebody who actually went out to a craft store and bought bunches of plastic flowers and plastic fruit and cheap vases and baskets. She even found plastic loaves of bread! Pazzo! Some fresh flowers in a nice vessel would be an appropriate touch. And bread and fruit in baskets is good, too. But use the real thing, for cryin' out loud! Unless you plan on serving other plastic foods as well.

Dinnerware can be fun. A lot of Italian dinnerware is hand painted ceramic and is very bright and colorful. It doesn't all have to match. Unexpected splashes of color and design among the plates and serving dishes will go a lot farther in “Italianizing” the tablescape than cheap plastic accessories.

Music is a must. You can find instrumental recordings of tarantellas and other traditional Italian folk music online or in most stores that have a good music section. Arias from operas by Verdi, Puccini, or Rossini are nice as are classical selections by Vivaldi or Paganini. You can even play songs by Italian-American singers like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Connie Francis and dozens of others. (Lady Gaga and Madonna are Italian-Americans, too, but I wouldn't push the envelope too much.)

The most important element of a successful Italian dinner party is attitude. Italians see meals as opportunities to spend time with family and friends rather than as just the fulfillment of a basic need for nourishment or sustenance. Because of this, even ordinary daily meals can last a little longer than might be common in other cultures. On holidays and special occasions, family feasts may last for hours - or days!

Keep the music playing, the food coming, the wine flowing, and the conversation going and you'll be guaranteed a great Italian dinner party.

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!


  1. Informative post!! Thanks for sharing this information on Italian dinner party. Would love to have Italian party at one of event venues Chicago. Will take some of your ideas to arrange this day in memorable way and for more ideas will check on internet.