Martha Stewart would not approve of this dinner party. There's little by way of festive decor, and the only food and drink awaiting the first guests are a pot of soup, a small plate of crackers with a cheese spread, and half a dozen bottles of red wine, one of which bears a label whose name can't be printed in a family newspaper.
What's missing: bowls for the soup, glasses for the wine, napkins of any kind.
The host, journalist Lisa Napoli, clearly prefers not to sweat the small stuff — or the large, for that matter — when it comes to entertaining at home. As guests filter into her three-bedroom apartment in downtown L.A., piling their shoes in the small entryway, the Friday night get-together feels more like an experiment in potluck partying. Starched linens, floral centerpieces and last-minute jitters are not invited.
"There's no perfection in the world. Why would you put that with a party?" Napoli asks. "Some people come here and I can tell that they're thinking, 'Oh, my God. I'm invited to her place and all she's got is a pot of chili, and she's wearing yoga pants.'"
If Napoli, 47, has perfected the art of imperfect entertaining, it's only through practice. The former reporter for the business show "Marketplace" and author of the just-released book "Radio Shangri-La" has been throwing what she calls "Friday night free-for-alls" from this high-rise apartment for six years. The tradition actually goes back more than two decades to her days at CNN in Atlanta, when she would invite coworkers over for casual dinners. The impetus, Napoli says, is simple: to spend time with friends without spending time (or much money) preparing.
"Having this every Friday is like a social catch-all," Napoli says. "I get to see lots of people in a way that doesn't eat up the whole week, and it's better than meeting at a restaurant. Trying to get a group of people together at Bottega Louie can turn into a nightmare, and it's too loud for conversation anyhow. This is just a casual way to see people."
Emphasis on casual. As guests arrive and gravitate toward Napoli's small kitchen, a meal rounds itself out. Someone has brought pesto pasta. A salami plate, more cheese and crackers, and Tupperware filled with homemade chocolate chip banana cookies appear. As usual, a crockpot contains Napoli's contribution, a vegetarian soup. This week, it's black bean.
And, no, the soup isn't Martha-approved either. Napoli never uses a recipe, preferring to go rogue with whatever's appealing at a downtown farmers market.
"Soup is not expensive, it's nutritious, you can't screw it up, and people don't have to mill around a table to get it. Plus, I have a dozen latte cups from Surfas that double as soup bowls," Napoli says, referring to the Culver City store.
Those bowls, glasses and napkins do make their appearance, eventually, but like the guest list, details of the evening feel wholeheartedly unscripted. People don't RSVP. They just show up, often bringing friends. The number typically ranges from three to 30, and the male-female ratio is often far from even. A guest recalls one night when two men and 18 women mingled. Tonight, the total is about 20 and appears to be a 50-50 split of the sexes.
David Garfield Roland, a lawyer, has been coming to the potlucks for as long as Napoli has been throwing them in L.A. Formerly a friend of a friend, and now a friend, Roland says he makes the gathering at least twice a month.
"So many warm relationships have formed from these nights," he says. "It's a highlight of the week. L.A. is so transient, but I find I actually have a chance to have a deep conversation and form deep connections with people here."
Liz Dubelman, who went to college with Napoli, says that the guest list is interesting and that "everyone has something to say."
"The biggest metaphor is that everyone takes off their shoes," says Dubelman, who comes about once a month — more often in the summer, when she brings her husband and daughter, Napoli's godchild. "You leave 'What do you do?,' 'Who are you?' at the door. It's nice to come to a place to eat some food, drink something and be with people who aren't cynical. It's nourishing."
With such a low-key approach to food, the main attraction of the evening naturally becomes conversation, and clusters of people easily form, break away and reassemble throughout the apartment. Napoli says that's the point, after all — seeing friends instead of stressing about appetizers. Just don't call the party a "salon." ("That word seems so pretentious," Napoli says.)
The easygoing atmosphere also proved to be a good setting to find a partner. Case in point: her boyfriend, Ted Habte-Gabr, with whom she lives.
"I fell in love with Ted because he started coming to my dinner parties," Napoli says. "I didn't have to invite him out to coffee, which would have felt awkward. This is so much better than going on a first date."
Later in the evening, a guest arrives bearing a cake with the inscription, "Good Luck Lisa." Tonight is the last get-together before a two-month party hiatus, while Napoli promotes "Radio Shangri-La," which details her adventures in Bhutan, a country tucked between India and China. The book has the subtitle "What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth" and depicts a place that, for all of its differences with the U.S., has some similarities with a very happy, very casual potluck in a Los Angeles high-rise.
"People there don't make appointments to see friends in Bhutan," Napoli says. "You just stop in and see people. If they're not there, you visit whoever is."