What is it about Italian food that makes it so delicious? The ingredients? The preparation? Perhaps the wine? All of these things help, but cookbook author Elizabeth Minchilli said more than anything, the social aspect of eating is what sets Italian cuisine apart from the rest.
“Because that’s what it’s all about … It’s really about sitting down and it’s social,” said Minchilli, a St. Louis, Missouri, native who’s lived in Rome for more than 30 years.
The good news is: You don’t need to be in Italy to eat like the Italians. In her latest book, “The Italian Table,” Minchilli crafts menus that mirror the meals served in Italy’s most beloved regions, and she shares tips on how to execute the food and ambience at home.
Here are her top tips for entertaining the Italian way:
Throw a party like the Venetians
Cicchetti is a tradition unique to Venice. Think of it as cocktail hour, where glasses of wine and goblets of spritzes are served alongside bite-sized snacks — and always in the company of others.
“[Cicchetti] are not necessarily a meal. What they are is an excuse not to get too drunk while you’re meeting your friends for a glass of wine,” Minchilli explained.
Cicchetti can be as simple as a piece of bread paired with an anchovy, or a slice of mortadella, topped with a pickled green pepper. Fried meatballs are also a popular option; so are eggplant strips, rolled with fresh mozzarella, basil and sun-dried tomatoes.
These snacks are, no doubt, perfect fare for a cocktail party, but Minchilli likes to assemble a menu of cicchetti for sit-down dinner parties, as well.
“I find people really like to socialize over that. You know, picking one thing here, one thing there, while you’re having yet another spritz or another glass of wine is a really nice idea for a party,” she said.
Pizza is always a good idea
Along with pasta and gelato, pizza is synonymous with Italian cuisine. It’s eaten all over Italy, but depending on where you are in the country, pizza means different things. In some regions, pizza is defined by its elaborate toppings; in others, the only toppings are salt and olive oil.
When it comes to entertaining at home, Minchilli likes to make a particular type of pizza that’s served in Rome.
“It’s the pizza where you go into a little store, they have trays of pizza, and you can pick and choose your slices. And you eat them standing up,” she said.
Her go-to recipe calls for a 24-hour-rise dough that can be made ahead of time. Minchilli likes to make multiple trays, topped with all different ingredients.
“And this makes it really easy as the night goes on, to bring out different pizzas as they’re ready,” Minchilli said. “People can serve themselves and have as much as they want. You can have something for vegetarians; there are meaty, cheese options; and it’s a really adaptable menu.”
Forget Sunday brunch, try Sunday lunch
In Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, Minchilli said there’s still a “tradition of women who run their households from the kitchen.” There, the multicourse Sunday lunch is still very much celebrated. Almost always, a homemade pasta and a roast are on the table. The special occasion also calls for the best linens, silver, crystal and more.
Pulling off a Sunday lunch for your family and friends isn’t something that should be done when you’re short on time. That said, you can take a few shortcuts: If you don’t want to make your own pasta, Minchilli said it’s perfectly OK to pick up fresh pasta from a specialty store. Also, head to an Italian bakery for cookies, pastries, tarts and other dessert options.
“Entertaining should not be stressful,” Minchilli said.
And if you’re eager to test out a new recipe for your menu, just give it a test run before the big day.
“Don’t try the first time when you have guests over. Practice first,” Minchilli added.
And one more thing to remember …
Even more than the food, Minchilli said the most important part of Italian entertaining is the company.
“As long as you’re inviting people and you’re ready to have a good time, you’re already ahead of the game,” she said.