What do you think the odds are that my wife, Lucy, and I would attend three dinner parties given by three different hosts -- none of whom knew us or each other -- in three different parts of the Los Angeles basin, over a period of more than four months, and every host would serve the same main course: osso buco?
That’s exactly what happened recently. And osso buco wasn’t the only common denominator. All three parties featured good food, good wine and good conversation, and all the hosts were clearly comfortable giving dinner parties.
Many friends who have moved to Los Angeles from other cities have complained to Lucy and me that people here just don’t like to give dinner parties.
But as we drove away from the last of the three readers’ dinners, Lucy said, “I guess the dinner party is alive and well in Los Angeles.”
So how did we come to attend three dinner parties hosted by complete strangers?
Last fall, at my editor’s urging, I wrote a column about the fun Lucy and I have had -- and the lessons we’ve learned -- giving dinner parties. I mentioned that although our guests have always been “very appreciative,” few had reciprocated by inviting us to their homes for dinner.
About 150 readers e-mailed me afterward, many saying they’d had similar experiences with non-reciprocity. More than 30 -- all of them strangers -- invited Lucy and me to their homes for dinner.
Thinking it would be an imposition to accept, I politely declined them all. But Lucy, ever alert to the opportunity to meet new people, urged me to accept two or three.
On the theory that the early bird should get the worm -- or, in this case, the columnist -- I decided we would accept the first invitation I’d received. I also picked a reader who had e-mailed me about other food and wine columns, and who has a daughter in our son’s school. All that seemed to suggest we might find something to talk about.
With one host in Bel-Air and one in Westchester, I chose a third who lives in Irvine, figuring that geographic diversity was as good a criterion as any.
Setting the date
When I e-mailed all three to accept their invitations, it immediately became apparent that each knew exactly which of his friends he wanted to include in his dinner party. E-mails flew back and forth as the hosts, their friends and Lucy and I consulted our calendars.
Once the dates were set, there were more e-mails from the hosts, mostly with questions about wine selections.
The first host, an attorney, also e-mailed me the Sunday before his Friday night party to ask if we preferred coffee or tea, caffeinated or decaf. I told him we didn’t usually decide until after dessert.
When Lucy got sick, I had to go by myself to that dinner -- fighting rush-hour traffic all the way from downtown L.A. to Bel-Air.
The hostess -- I’m not using names here to avoid invading the privacy of any of these folks who so kindly invited us into their homes -- had spent much of the day cooking for our group of nine.
She later told me, as did our subsequent hosts, that she chose osso buco because it’s one of her favorite dishes and because it can largely be prepared in advance and then just heated up. There’s no worry about last-minute timing or possible overcooking, so the hostess isn’t stuck in the kitchen all evening, anxiously abandoning her guests
Osso buco also has a certain sophisticated sound to it; because the name is foreign, “it seems more exotic than a simple roast,” as the hostess of our third dinner party would tell me, four months hence.
At the first reader’s dinner party, we all nibbled on egg rolls and potatoes topped with smoked salmon or caviar before dinner.
Then we sat down to a splendid fresh sorrel soup and what would turn out to be the best of the three reader osso bucos -- perhaps because this recipe called for mashed anchovy, which gave the dish a nice, salty bite.
Alongside the osso buco was its traditional accompaniment -- risotto Milanese, made with saffron. Salad came next, then chocolate cake and ice cream.
It was all delicious, as were the host’s 2002 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir and 2001 Sforzato di Valtellina and his brother’s ’82 Lynch-Bages. Having been encouraged to contribute a red Burgundy when I’d asked what to bring, I brought a ’96 Gevrey-Chambertin Les Cazetiers from Serafin Pere & Fils.
And the conversation? I was especially amused by the story the host and hostess told of their first meeting, when they worked at the same law firm. He thought she was so pale that he asked if her parents had locked her in a closet for her entire childhood.
After that icebreaker, he asked if she bought her clothes at “Dress for Success.” She responded in kind by asking if he’d bought his suit at Montgomery Ward.
Somehow, they hit it off and have been married 24 years.
Two months later -- two weeks after Christmas -- Lucy and I pulled up in front of our next hosts’ home, in Westchester. It had the most elaborate Christmas decorations either of us had ever seen -- sleighs and reindeer and lights covered their roof and linked their house to houses on both sides.
The hosts had asked each of the two other couples to provide a dish. One guest, a Belgian chef, made shrimp croquettes as an hors d’oeuvre and -- having brought his own waffle iron -- made Belgian waffles with raspberries and blackberries for dessert.
We had not been asked to bring any food, but when I’d asked what we could contribute, the host had said, “Champagne.”
So we drank my sparklers while munching on the shrimp croquettes and the host’s smoked salmon with creme fraiche and -- again -- small potatoes topped with caviar.
While we got acquainted, the host and his wife showed us their scrapbooks. They had hosted 107 dinner parties since 1991, she told us. After each, they have the guests sign the menu and they put the menu, guest list and a list of the wines served into a scrapbook.
Her husband had done the cooking, and he started us with a mousseline of salmon and scallops, accompanied by a 2000 Kistler McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay. Then came the osso buco, again with risotto Milanese.
A week earlier, the host-chef had e-mailed me a list of all his Italian wines, asking me to pick what I wanted to drink with osso buco. I told him I would feel presumptuous if I did that, so I politely declined. He then chose a ’90 Scavino Barolo Cannubi, a ’90 Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato and a ’79 Elvio Cogno. The Scavino was easily the best.
“One reason I made osso buco,” he said, “is that I know from reading your columns that you really like Barolo, and Barolo is perfect for osso buco.”
It was indeed.
Over dinner, we talked about how to monitor the movies and TV shows our children watch. One mom said her 9-year-old son often sneaked downstairs to watch TV at 3:30 in the morning. But she and her husband devised a plan to catch him: “We changed the setting on our burglar alarm.”
Osso buco, again
Our final reader’s dinner didn’t take place until late last month.
This time, there were only six of us. The hostess seemed a little nervous at first, but everything went just fine.
The first course was salmon, cooked in foil with herbs and tomatoes. Accompanied by a 2002 Tablas Creek Grenache blanc, it was one of the best wine-food pairings at any of the readers’ dinners.
I knew osso buco would be coming next because the host had told me so when we’d exchanged e-mails about what wine I might bring.
“I think there’s an osso buco epidemic among Times subscribers,” I’d told Lucy at the time. “Must be something in the ink the paper uses.”
At this dinner, the hosts skipped the risotto Milanese, in favor of roast vegetables. Since the host had suggested I bring a Barolo, I’d brought an old-style ’82 Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno and a new-style ’90 Cannubi Boschis from Luciano Sandrone. We all preferred the older Barolo.
Between sips, our hostess told us that the night’s dishes had all come from a cookbook by Giada De Laurentiis of Food Network fame. She also said that the night before, her husband had tried to fool her into thinking that de Laurentiis herself was also coming to dinner. (Perhaps that’s why the hostess seemed so nervous when we first arrived.)
We soon fell to talking about our respective vacations, and it turned out that the other male guest is a mountaineer who’s climbed Mt. Everest. His wife said she’s “terrified of heights.”
She told us about hanging off one mountain ridge “by my fingertips.”
For dessert -- no hanging by her fingertips here -- she’d made an almond torte that she said was probably “too dry,” so she’d also made chocolate-Cabernet truffles. She was right about the torte, but I really liked the decadently dense truffles.
On the way home, I told Lucy, “We have to reciprocate and invite all three of our host couples together to dinner at our house.”
We’re now trying to work out mutually convenient dates.
We won’t serve osso buco.