Last month, my friend Phil Rosenthal, creator and producer of the television show "Everybody Loves Raymond," came to my little town in Italy to film an episode of his new travel-food show, "I'll Have What Phil's Having." Among the daily activities and local food customs they wanted to feature was a dinner party at my home with my friend, the famous Tuscan butcher, Dario Cecchini, manning the grill.
My friend and coauthor Carolynn Carreño happened to be in town, and when we looked at the day's schedule that they'd planned for me, we noticed that they'd allotted exactly two hours to prepare dinner for 30 people. Carolynn and I are in the midst of writing my next book about how I entertain at home in both Los Angeles and Italy — casual food that can be prepared in stages and can sit without suffering on a room-temperature buffet — so this would be a perfect test case.
If there is one tip I can give anyone trying to make entertaining easy, it's exactly what I did after looking at that schedule, and what I do any time I entertain: Enlist help. I don't mean the hired kind — that's not my style — I mean a few carefully chosen friends who not only know how to do what needs to be done (including setting the table or lighting the fire) but who also find that coming several hours early to a party to do these things is fun.
The second tip, the one that divides seasoned entertainers from people with less experience, is knowing what to serve when. Pros know to keep it simple, and at no time or place is it easier to do that than summer in Southern California, when the outdoor grill is the place to be and the produce is so good you don't need to do anything to it.
For the Dario dinner, the first thing we did was contact Ella Freyinger, a Los Angeles chef and friend of a friend, who was vacationing in my town with her husband, to ask if she wanted to help. She did. Next, Carolynn and I sat down and brainstormed the menu: a selection of salumi and crackers to start out, and pinzimonio (the pretty Italian word for raw vegetables) with bagna cauda and vegetable salads to be determined by our trip to the farm stand down the hill.
We picked out what the owner proudly told us was "nostro" (ours) and built a selection of salads and side dishes around those. I know that sounds like a cliché, but since we had very little time to prepare, we had to start with great ingredients and keep the prep as simple as possible.
Dario would grill bistecca fiorentina and pork sausages, and we would take care of the rest.
One of our guests, Italian food aficionado Faith Willinger, taught us to make a twist on the plain tomato-basil salad: You crush the tomatoes in your hands and push the meat through a strainer to remove the bitter seeds.
Then there were cucumbers with sweet onions, olive oil, lemon juice and fresh fennel pollen we'd picked earlier that morning; grilled round zucchini; fett'unta (grilled bread drenched in olive oil); shell beans tossed with celery leaf pesto; roasted torpedo onions agrodolce (with vinegar and a tad of sugar); and a radicchio salad with mustard vinaigrette and shaved Parmigiano.
And for dessert: sheep's milk ricotta drizzled with chestnut honey, served on a platter with ripe summer peaches.
The party, if I do say so, was one of the best I've ever prepared. I even got to sit down and eat with my guests. And therein is the great "white lie" of entertaining, because what you and I know is that the party wasn't all mine: There was a team behind that so-called simple summer meal. And I have only gratitude admitting it.
Here are some of my best tips for easy entertaining:
1. Enlist help. But not just any help. Figure out which of your friends and family members really want to jump in the trenches with you — not just to come and start snacking and drinking early.
2. Find the right task for the right person. Let the teenagers set the table or bring out the platters of food; have your pyro pals light the grill. People like to contribute, especially when they're given a task they feel comfortable with.
3. If you have a friend who makes one thing you love — a certain kind of cookie, say, or a dip — and he or she asks to bring something, accept the offer. Just make sure your friend comes early, so you have time to transfer it to your own dish and put it out on the table before guests start to arrive, when you'll have 50 other things to do.
4. Put out easy appetizers for guests to snack on, such as good crackers, cheese and cheese condiments,salumi and seasonal fruit. Place them away from the kitchen, so your guests will be entertained while you get the meal on the table.
5. Keep the meal simple. Keep each dish simple and don't prepare too many of them.
6. Keep dessert even simpler: Offer a selection of artisan chocolate bars, boxes of store-bought ice cream, carefully curated cookies from a favorite bakery. I don't recommend you start baking a peach pie or churning ice cream the same day you have 30 guests coming over.