MP x Belle: The art of making do with what you have.

May 28, 2019

Celebrate the art of easy entertaining and do as the Italians do by setting an easy table using what’s in the cupboards. In other words, keep it simple and intuitive. Italian food is usually very fresh and unfussy, and this, too, seems to be the modus operandi for entertaining. For Italians sharing a meal with friends and family is about being joyous and generous. 

It doesn’t need to be complicated. If like my husband you grew up in Italy, you would have a very strong sense that there is a right and a wrong way to eat.

An Italian meal begins with an antipasto. Meant to awaken the palate and stave off initial hunger pangs, it’s a great way to kick off a meal – and the way we like to entertain – with a few platters and boards of sliced, cured meats and marinated olives, that are a festive and enticing sight. 

Melissa Penfold’s Country House

The idea is to let guests serve themselves (or be served by you), a few pieces of thinly sliced prosciutto, mortadella, along with shards of top-shelf Parmigiano Reggiano and salami, served with fresh crusty bread. There’s something very welcoming about it.

It’s an attractive concept to adopt at home for a dinner party, too. The advantages are obvious: everything is prepared ahead, and there’s no fussing. Serve it buffet style and let guests choose, or on individual plates on people’s laps as a composed salad-like first course.

Melissa Penfold’s Country House

We recommend curating your own; it’s more interesting and you get only what you really want. For an extremely simple antipasto, use crisp sliced fennel, blanched asparagus, and finely sliced Spanish onions, drizzled with fruity olive oil.

Choose the very freshest mozzarella, burrata or ricotta. These cheeses (serve just one kind or several) must be absolutely pristine, buy them the day you intend to serve them, and make sure they are at cool room temperature, not straight from the fridge, to accentuate their sweetness.

After the aperitivo, the party moves to the dining table or an alfresco terrace. The idea is to keep people entertained, just enjoying a welcoming drink and music.

Keep It Simple

Food should be simple, generous, easy to serve and easy to eat, but not complicated. Keeping your menu humble, is far more Italian in spirit than a 10-course masterpiece. You don’t want the food to distract people from the real purpose of the event: getting together.

Serve Yourself

Save hassle (and money) by not plating up meals. Do what the Italians do, and place the main course down the middle of the table, or on a nearby sideboard. There’s nothing nicer than helping yourself to what you fancy. Use different sized platters and pedestal bowls for interest. It looks (and feels) modern.

Melissa Penfold’s Country House

Use Whatever is Around

Italians are masters of making really delicious things with whatever’s around. Sicilian capers, a nice sea salt, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes – a handful of this and a cupful of that, just judging it by eye.

Italian Menu

At our parties there’s always a pasta al forno with mushrooms, eggplant, a meat course, and peppers plus a grilled Mediterranean vegetable bake with parmesan for those who prefer vegetarian options. Or he might do a couple of roasted chickens. It’s really simple fare. If it’s a roast chicken, then he will just put oil on top, fresh rosemary, sea salt and stuff it with lemon. If it’s legs or breasts or whatever, he will marinate them before and just do them on the grill. 

Melissa Penfold’s Country House

Italian Hospitality

The most important part of entertaining to learn from Italians is a happy expression and heartfelt hospitality. It will calm you before any dinner party or event.

Remembering that it’s just about sharing your bounty with people you love is really helpful. Relax and making everyone feel relaxed is the Italian way.

Food Should Be as Simple as Possible

Italians generally eschew experimentation in favour of tradition. They stick with the Italian culture of real food and prefer dishes that contain two to three flavours, so you can taste the ingredients, which must — it goes without saying — be of high quality.

Melissa Penfold’s Country House

Follow the Seasons

Italians are committed to eating locally grown ingredients and enjoying them at their peak – it’s almost a religious devotion to the rite of the in-season delicacy. Work with what’s in season – you will achieve a lot more, for a lot less.

A Plate for Every Dish

The flavours of different courses should never mix — it’s a rule of the Italian kitchen. When I first married my husband he spread everything across different plates leaving us to wash up 20 dishes at every family meal. We have refined our dishes but still rigorously separate courses and flavours to keep fragrances from mingling.

Respect the Meal as a Sacred Ritual

Meals are of an almost spiritual importance to Italians. Life is very much about meals for Italians and everyone dines together, whether it’s a grand affair or daily lunch at home.

Italians like introducing a topic of weight and hearing the opinion of each guest. It’s about the joy of living. Something we can all learn from.

This is an excerpt from my Style column in Belle magazine, JUNE/JULY, 2019 ISSUE. Grab the issue for more fave pieces we use when entertaining.

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