When most of us think of throwing an Italian-themed dinner party, we think of putting on a big feast with lots of pasta, a massive salad, bountiful amounts of wine, and perhaps some tiramisu as dessert. But for celebrity caterer Mary Giuliani, it’s a lot more than that. Sure, the food is important, but it’s also about the people.
“The essence of Italian entertaining is the joy of the preparation that goes into it. I was very lucky to grow up with my grandparents in the house, and we would cook all day Saturday for Sunday. … It’s enjoying what you’re doing and wanting to share that experience,” she told us.
Yes, the people and the love are the most important ingredients in any Italian-inspired occasion. But that doesn’t mean the food shouldn’t be another major highlight.
In anticipation of warm-weather dinner parties, The Daily Meal spoke with Giuliani on how to modernize your Italian dinners, throw a stunning Tuscan-themed bash outdoors, and how to keep Italian entertaining concepts in every party you throw.
The Daily Meal: Italian entertaining is rooted in traditional flavors, traditional dishes, and traditional atmospheres. How would you suggest someone bring something unique or whimsical into an Italian themed dinner party?
Mary Giuliani: I’m a big fan of finding truly authentically Italian products and ingredients, so I was thrilled to find out that the number one bakery in Italy, Mulino Bianco, now has products available here in our grocery stores. I found their breadsticks to be delicious, so I built a meal around the breadsticks, because Italians love breadsticks. I also love things that can be prepared before my guests arrive. So, with spring and summer coming up, I made a rainbow breadstick bar. The breadsticks are front and center, with various dips and vegetables and cheeses to go with it. Visually, it’s a really pretty display. So when my guests come in, they’re like, “Wow! That’s so pretty.” Then, it’s hearty and filling, so they can make big plates and dip their breadsticks in all the different sauces and dips. And I can enjoy my time with them because I’m not running back and forth to the kitchen.
Would you say Italian food is an easy cuisine to create fusion with?
Definitely. You just take the basic core of the simplicity of the Italian ingredients. That’s the beautiful thing about Italian cooking: It really comes down to fresh, what’s in season, and not too many things. With white beans, for instance, a regular hummus has chickpeas, and white beans are traditional with rosemary. That’s a way to make your beans more Italian. With a guacamole, I replace cilantro with fresh basil just to give it that Italian twist. Again, you take the essence of what people feel and smell with Italian ingredients and infuse it into the food.
Everyone knows spaghetti, lasagna, breadsticks, and typical Italian dishes. What are some of your favorite Italian dishes that someone who isn’t Italian may not know about.
There’s a lot of these really simple pastas that have now caught on in a big way. When we were sick or at home, my grandmother would make these comfort foods like the Cacio e Pepe. That’s just a butter sauce with black pepper grated into it and you heat it up and add a handful of parmesan cheese. It’s so simple, just three ingredients. But it’s a really exciting dish that’s comforting and yummy. These dishes have caught on more now, but it’s funny when people say they don’t know how to cook. Those things are so simple to make. There’s also carbonara, which my grandmother used to call bacon and eggs on pasta. Again, teaching people that way on how to cook Italian with just a few simple ingredients is a great way to get their feet wet.
For an Italian dinner night, what kind of décor would you recommend?
It’s funny. I like to use the food as décor too. I like flowers and candles too. But I like taking the table outside to an unexpected place, especially now with the weather nicer. I like to use my dessert as an idea for my table décor. Mulino Bianco also makes really great Italian cookies in different shapes, sizes, and colors, which is great. I can put them on a platter. Then I’ll put out ice cream with different toppings, chocolate sauce, sprinkles, and caramel sauce, and encourage people to make their own ice cream sandwiches. Decorating your own cookies is a great way to have an elevated entertaining experience with delicious Italian flavors. I like using food as décor.
That’s a great way to be on-trend and it can help with the budget.
Definitely. It’s like a snack-tivity. It’s like taking something that looks pretty but is also fun and interactive. People like to make something that’s theirs; they like to play chef. They’ll take a picture of it, put it on Instagram. It’s fun to see how people interact with these things.
When I think of spring and summertime entertaining with an Italian theme, Tuscany is a very natural direction to go. Do you have any easy ideas for a Tuscan dinner party?
Find the nicest day of the week, take your dining table and put it outside, hang a few twinkle lights in a tree, put two jugs of wine on the table, and that to me is Tuscany. It’s all about alfresco, being outside, smelling nature, eating nature. You can grow fresh basil in your garden, and that’s even better because you can smell it. Then, throw a bunch of rosemary into whatever you’re cooking and then it’s Tuscan.
Do you have any Tuscan dish recommendations?
I love tortellini panna. It’s a cream sauce with a little bit of prosciutto in it. It takes me back to Italy when I eat that.
Do you have any other fun and easy advice for entertaining with an Italian theme?
The essence of Italian entertaining is the joy of the preparation that goes into it. I was very lucky to grow up with my grandparents in the house, and we would cook all day Saturday for Sunday. When it comes to cooking Italian, it’s a couple things: It’s enjoying what you’re doing and wanting to share that experience; it’s also about limiting your ingredients. I sometimes say, pick no more than two or three items to make your pasta or your fish or your chicken. Because you can taste the freshness in that. A perfectly cooked piece of fish with lemon and garlic — that’s all you know? The Italian way is not to overthink it. Make it more about what you do well and how you want to share it while using the freshest and simplest ingredients.