Stress Free Italian Inspired Dinner Party

I am not Martha Stewart, and if you are reading this I’m guessing neither are you (Martha, if it is you, I love what you do but I don’t have the time, energy or budget to be you).

For those of us lesser humans, the thought of throwing a dinner party can be stressful. I want a casual evening surrounded by great friends, good food and lots of laughter. I don’t want to spend the whole night in the kitchen, but I do want people to think I worked tirelessly on a gourmet meal. What is one to do?

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I took inspiration from Italy, added some shortcuts and tweaks, and even put together a time line so that you can host a minimal effort party that will impress your friends or family. Conosco i mei polli (which literally translated means “I know my chicken”, but in Italy means something more like “trust me, I know what I’m talking about”)

A little view of Italy for inspiration

OK, to keep this post from being a thousand pages long I’m posting the recipes separately with links along the way. Think of this post as the framework and commentary, then you can pull up the recipes as you need them without scrolling through all of my ramblings.

First things first, this meal is inspired by a traditional Italian dinner, but I made some adjustments and took some liberties to make it as simple and stress free as possible. It isn’t exactly what a good Italian would do, but I tried to capture the essence and the flavors.

Classic Antipasto Selections

Antipasto – Before the meal. These are light appetizers for everyone to graze on while you chat. Simple meats, cheeses and fruits. Prep time is minimal and the only “cooking” involved is making some bruschetta if you so choose. Vegetarians can skip the meat and still have abundant antipasto.

Pizza Margherita

Primo – The first course. This is generally something warm. It could be a simple pasta. I chose to go with Pizza Margherita here because you can get everything ready in advance and just pop it in the oven for about 10 minutes. This is also very portable so you don’t have to get everyone around the table just yet.

Simple Italian Salad

Insalata – The salad. Time to get everyone around the table. No recipe needed here, fill a large bowl with your favorite leafy greens. Add some black olives, red onions, tomatoes and a few croutons . Peperoncini peppers are a nice touch if you can find them (look for them near the pickles in your grocery). For a little flair you can top with some fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Served with Italian dressing of course.

Slow Cooker Manicotti

Secondo – The main course. This should be a heavier meat or pasta dish. To keep the cost of this party reasonable and to make the prep really easy, we’re going with a slow cooker manicotti. The real win is that everything goes in the slow cooker hours before the party and then you forget about it. Added bonus – no meat in this pasta so your vegetarian friends can eat it too.

Contorno – side dishes. I went with Italian Roasted Vegetables and a simple Cold Pasta Salad. The pasta salad can be made well in advance and kept in the fridge, and roasted veggies can be prepped in advance and popped in the oven after the pizza comes out (don’t forget to turn down the oven!). Both of these are easy, delicious and fairly authentic.

Mascarpone Budino with Berries

Dolce – Dessert. It’s getting late now, but you’re not quite ready for this dinner to end. Admit it, you’re having a great time and things have gone splendidly. This was so easy, why were you ever worried? Time to wow them with a simple but beautiful final course of Budino (a layered dessert made with mascarpone cheese, whipped cream, fresh berries and crumbled cookies). Not overly sweet or heavy, perfect after a big meal. Not a bad time to serve some coffee as well.

Odedi at Odedi’s Wine Reviews was kind enough to lend his considerable expertise and experience by providing three excellent recommendations to accompany this meal. I am truly in his debt as wine is not my strong suit. Check out his blog and his extensive collection of wine reviews and ratings, you won’t be disappointed. Your friends will be impressed with your selections and your newfound knowledge of these wines.

OK – I promised a time line for the prep and and the minimal cooking that will make this all easy and carefree so you can spend time with your guests (If you have peaked at the recipes along the way you know they are pretty basic and do not require extensive cooking skills). All of the recipes are portioned for 5-6 people (but you can stretch up to 8 people). If you are expecting 10-12 people you will need to double everything.

The day before or morning of your dinner

  • Make sure you have all of your ingredients, wine, etc. you don’t want the stress of a last minute rush to the store or discover too late they don’t have something. If your house is like mine you may have to run the dishwasher to make sure everyone has a clean fork and plate to eat with.
  • Make the pasta salad, put it in the fridge and forget about it until you are ready to serve it at the party.
  • Wash and cut up the vegetables for the Italian Roasted Vegetables. Store covered in the fridge until you are ready.
  • Make the salad (just leave out the croutons until you are ready to serve). Store in the fridge until you are ready to serve that night.
  • If you want, you can mix up the filling for the manicotti and keep it in the fridge as well.
  • Find your wine glasses (and wine opener!) and slow cooker, and pick a good spot where the slow cooker won’t get in your way. You don’t want to move it once you load it up.

3-4 hours before your party (eat some lunch, tidy up the house, pick out your outfit for the party, etc. before you start this list)

  • Manicotti first – it takes about 15-20 minutes to prep but 4 hours to cook on low in your slow cooker. You don’t want it ready the minute people arrive, so don’t rush starting it. If you lose track of time, don’t panic. Put the cooker on high and this will be done in 2 hours.
  • Make the sauce for your pizza margherita. Finely dice some onions and put them aside and you can convert your extra sauce into bruschetta topping if you want after you prep the pizzas. Set this aside, no need to refrigerate.
  • Finish cleaning/cutting any veggies you skipped this morning. Slice your basil and cut up the mozzarella for the pizza.

90 minutes before the party

  • Toss your veggies for roasting in the oil and spices. Spread them out on a baking sheet and set it aside on the counter
  • Prep the pizzas but don’t bake them yet, set them next to that pan of veggies waiting to be roasted. If you are making bruschetta add those finely diced onions to the remaining pizza sauce and bingo, bruschetta topping)
  • Make the whipped mascarpone and cream for the budino. Put this in a covered container in the fridge. (If your kitchen is far from where the party action will be you can finish assembling the budini and put them in the fridge.)
  • Crumble up the cookies for the budino
  • Now go get dressed, people are coming over.

45 Minutes before the party

  • Consider putting an apron on, you don’t want to mess up those party clothes
  • Assemble your antipasto onto some nice platters, cutting boards, etc. Set them out for guests when they arrive.
  • Set your table and put out wine glasses, etc.

20 minutes before the party

  • Uncork that wine, let it breathe
  • Heat up the oven and toast that bruschetta (if you are serving bruschetta with the antipasto).
  • Preheat the oven to 500 degrees for the pizza (crazy right? Who knew they get that hot)
  • Take off that apron unless it adds to your mystique

Zero hour!

  • Welcome your guests, make them comfortable. Serve some wine, encourage everyone to enjoy some antipasto. Tell a joke or a story, get this party rolling.
  • Once things get rolling, slip out for a minute and toss that pizza in the oven. Set the timer for 8 minutes.
  • Since you are in the kitchen, check the manicotti. If the pasta is soft and the cheese is melted go ahead and turn it off but leave the lid on). If not, leave it going.
  • As soon as the cheese on the pizza is melted and starts to brown pull it out and slice it. Small pieces are OK, its just the first course.
  • Turn the oven down to 425 so it is ready for the veggies in a little while.
  • Serve the pizza and hang out with your guests. Enjoy some wine and some food for a while.

30-45 minutes into the party

  • Sneak into the kitchen and throw those veggies in the oven. Set the timer for 20 minutes. Grab the salad from the fridge and head back out there (don’t forget the croutons).
  • Herd everyone to the table. Serve the salad. Let people dress their own salad with some decent Italian dressing. Take your time, keep the conversation going.

20 minutes later….

  • Check the veggies. Are they nice and roasty? If not, leave them in for another 5-10 minutes and get back to the party. If they are looking good, pull them out and put them in a bowl with a large serving spoon. Turn the oven off.
  • Pull the pasta salad out of the fridge, add your garnish and plop a serving spoon in there.
  • Clear the salad plates from the table and put out the veggies and pasta salad.
  • Start scooping up that delicious manicotti on individual plates and take them to the table. Let your guests serve themselves from the side dishes. Make sure everyone has enough wine. Sit back and enjoy the meal with your guests.

When the time feels right later in the evening…

  • Assemble the budini (plural of budino) in individual cups with the ingredients you prepped (or just pull them out of the fridge if you made them ahead). Hand these out with ooohs and ahhhhs from your guests. Consider serving some coffee with dessert.

That’s it! You’ve just thrown an incredible dinner party and wasn’t hard at all.

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