Dear Noelle, I don't make homemade manicotti shells. I buy my shells imported from Italy at an Italian store. But,…
While you may know Lisa for her cookbooks “Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner?” and “This is Sunday Dinner”, and her line of Lisa’s Italian Sunday Sauces, her friends and family know her best for the great dinner parties she organizes. When you come to Lisa’s house you know there will be scintillating conversation, delicious food, and that memories and connections will be made around the table. It’s true that Lisa’s perfection of the art of throwing a dinner party began around the Sunday Dinner table, when she would help her maternal grandmother Catherine Lione from Sicily, whom she and her cousins called Nana, cook and set the table. As she grew, Lisa watched her mother throw typical faculty-wife dinner parties with guests from all around the world who gathered at her family’s table to engage in philosophical conversations with her father. Fast forward to Lisa’s years raising her children between the United States and Italy and you can imagine the beautiful and challenging opportunities to put together guest lists and menus that reflected Lisa’s cosmopolitan life and circle. Over the years, Lisa’s identified some foundational elements that have made throwing a dinner party easier for her and more impactful for her guests. She shares her tips with you below!
Lisa’s Entertaining Tip #1 Consider a Themed Menu with Decorations to Match
Lisa always plans a themed menu. You might prioritize a seasonal menu, with vegetables or fruits that are in season. If it’s film festival season, consider choosing a menu that highlights a film (watching Io Sono L’Amore? concentrate on Milanese dishes…. Death in Venice? Perfect for a fish theme in honor of Venice’s bacari!). It’s fall now and football season- consider a tailgate theme! Themed dinner party menus and themed dinner parties, period, give you direction as a hostess. This also applies to your decorations!
One of Lisa’s fall-themed Tuscan Dinner Party tablescapes
Lisa’s Entertaining Tip #2 Choose a Themed Menu where Dishes can be made ahead of time
Lisa always plans a menu where at least 50% of the dishes are able to be made ahead of time. Any tomato sauce for your pasta dish, for example, can be made the day before. Appetizers like Lisa’s Filo Dough Stuffed with Cheese and Sun-dried Tomatoes (in “Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner?”, Menu 47) can be made the day before, frozen, and cooked at the last minute so they are warm to serve. Tiramisu can also be made ahead of time and refrigerated (watch Lisa make hers here!).
Lisa making her classic Tiramisu this Spring
Lisa’s Entertaining Tip #3 Choose a Themed Menu with Variety
Lisa’s makes a point of choosing a multi-course menu where every dish and recipe goes together and there is variety. Mix it up! Not every dish, for example, should be cream based or tomato based- consider the digestive tracks of your guests! Lisa likes to combine rustic, Italian recipes with more elegant and fancy ones. So many of her friends and even family over the years have said, Lisa, I can’t do this! I can’t cook and entertain like you do! Rather than create a menu that seems totally inaccessible, Lisa likes to find a balance so her guests are surprised but at ease, finding the food and recipes accessible for their own tables. One of Lisa’s favorite menus for this is Menu 42 in “Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner?”: Funghi Ripieni (stuffed mushrooms), Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and White Beans), Tagliata con Rucola e Limone (Sliced rib-eye steak with arugula and lemon), and Pere cotte in Vino Bianco con Pistachio e Mascarpone (Poached pears in white wine with pistachio and mascarpone cream). The stuffed mushrooms can be made ahead of time and cooked last minute. The Pasta Fagioli can be assembled and left to cook as you entertain your guests, letting you add the pasta at the last minute when there is a lull in conversation so the pasta doesn’t expand too much. Cook the tagliata on your grill, while you let your guests mingle outside. Baked pears can be made ahead of time and served at room temperature, adding the pistachios and cream at the last minute. Elegant and rustic at the same time, this menu is not intimidating to your guests, and, at the same time, tagliata is a good cut of beef that will impress while the baked pears are elegant and refined. It’s a nice mix!
Menu 42 in Lisa’s cookbook “Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner?”
Lisa’s Entertaining Tip #4 Move outside!
Do you have a porch, a deck, a yard, any outdoor space, even a balcony? Make it a central part of your dinner party! Lisa loves to have aperitivo time outside, with cocktails, analcolici (the Italian version of non-alcoholic drinks!) and appetizers on her deck or even dessert outside. It offers guests a change of scenery and fresh air. Of course, when you can- throw the entire dinner party outside! Lisa is known for this among her friends and family – tutti a tavola al fresco!
Lisa and her daughter, Felicia, in 2016 in their backyard with appetizers before a family dinner
Lisa’s Entertaining Tip #5 Musica è… make a playlist to liven up the party!
Lisa always has music in the background of her dinner parties that matches the dinner party theme. Whether it’s a “Dinner in Italy” playlist you find on Apple Music or a playlist you curate yourself, music sets the mood and makes your guests more comfortable. No need to worry if there is a lull in the conversation- the music will still make everyone feel at home and in their element. Plus, before you know it, you might just have an Italian sing-along!