Ever since moving into my new apartment in April, I have been praying for good weather so that I could finally work in some balcony patio entertaining. Living in the city is a wonderful thing, but small, concrete spaces demand a lot of creativity. However, if I’ve learned anything from watching Tiny House documentaries, it’s not the size of the space, but what you do with it that counts!
Anyone who’s ever visited my home knows that my entertaining style is highly, highly influenced by the Italian way of life. In other words—striving to exude effortless, unpretentious elegance. Ever since dining at my friend’s stately old family villa in Mestre (on the mainland of Venice) in 2009, my standard for al fresco dining has been set very high. My Fiorentino friend Lorenzo has also been teaching me the Italian art of crafting cocktails, which has been extremely helpful at my most recent housewarming party, and in setting up my home bar. Needless to say, I am now looking for every excuse to invite friends over to soak in the sunshine, and share in a few bottles of Italian wine.
I appreciate the entertaining efforts that others put into their barbecued concoctions, cute skewers of everything, and cupcake trays, but it’s not my style. I aim to entertain in a way that requires little preparation and produces maximum enjoyment, while still feeling very sophisticated. Here are my recommendations for doing it yourself.
Prepare your Space
It’s amazing what a little wood oil can do to perk up some weather-beaten patio furniture. I suggest buying pieces that are sturdy and neutral, but most importantly, cozy. A nice selection of tropical plants will do wonders for creating the “urban oasis” that you have envisioned. Potted herbs are also great for décor and for garnishing your salads. Before your guests arrive, ensure the space is clean, and that seating is arranged in a way that facilitates conversation for the number of people that you expect. You don’t need stress out about a theme. Minimal Elegance is a theme.
Set a Playlist
Music comes second only to food in the list of successful elements of entertaining. If I lived in Tuscany, I would probably just forgo the music, but I require serious background tunes to drown out the sounds of the city. Music also improves the dining experience by relaxing your guests and putting them in a better mood. Thankfully with the proliferation of music streaming, you can just pick a pre-made playlist (I often default to instrumental Jazz and acoustic Pop) and set it to comfortable volume on a loop. Be mindful of whether you require an extension cord for your indoor speaker, or invest in a nice portable speaker that can be used outdoors.
Choose a Wine
Summer is the perfect time to enjoy the white wines you’ve been passing over all winter. There are tons of great white varietals that are great for enjoying outdoors, but I would recommend selecting something that’s light, crisp and has some fruity notes to it. This weekend, I based my entire spread around the Ruffino Pinot Grigio, which is coincidentally grown and harvested in Tuscany. It has a nice crisp acidity, with notes of apple, pear and lemon zest. I also kept/keep two bottles of Ruffino Prosecco chilled and ready to serve as soon as the mood is festive enough. Pinot Grigio is very light, and requires some thought in cheese selection, but prosecco literally goes with anything. In fact, it’s my secret entertaining weapon. Surprise guest? I’m ready for you. I would also recommend keeping a few bottles of sparkling water, orange juice (great for mimosas too) and a few other beverages in the fridge for any guests who may not be as die-hard of a “prosecco head” as you might be.
Assemble a Cheese Board
There is nothing more “entertaining” than a cheese board. It’s incredibly easy to do, and everyone knows how to navigate it. The interactive nature of the board also creates more energy and serves as a focal point for discussion (“Wow, these crackers are great! Where did you get them?” said everyone always). The cheese board I created this weekend was carefully selected to compliment the Pinot Grigio. I started with a tried and true double cream brie, and found a new cheese (Chemin Hatley, an organic raw milk cheese from Compton, Quebec) that was intriguing and slightly bolder. Then, I focused on a few fruits that would pair well (pears, green grapes and dried apricots). I often use walnuts as a nut option, but opted for a lighter roasted almond this time. Prosciutto is a great charcuterie choice (the last thing you want is a heavy salami that would overpower the other items). Then, I finished off the board with a special cracker, a dollop of grainy mustard, and a white wine jelly. By the way, if you’re bringing out the prosecco and find that the cheese board is getting depleted, top it off with a few other saltier items that will complement the bubbly well (parmesan cheese and kettle chips are always excellent options).
Side note: It’s also great to have a friend like Kathryn with a good eye for composition help you assemble the board while you’re prepping other food (seriously, there are some friends who I love, but would only dare assign them to pour wine and water).
Create a Signature Dish
Consider the wine you’ve chosen and cheese board you’ve prepared, and think of something that would go well with both. I usually head to the market without a plan and create something simple based on the freshest ingredients available that day. This weekend, I conjured up a shaved asparagus and fennel crostini. It looks so elegant, and takes almost no work to prepare. I was also delighted that it paired amazingly with the wines. I turned it into a quick and easy recipe below, but once you make it, you’ll realize that you probably didn’t really need a recipe in the first place. No-recipe dishes are the best kind of dishes.
At the time of writing this article, I am sitting on my patio and polishing off the rest of the Pinot Grigio, pears, cheese and crackers from yesterday’s entertaining. As soon as I post this, I’m ready to start preparing to do it all over again this afternoon. Good luck in your patio entertaining adventures!
- One bunch of asparagus
- Half a fennel bulb
- One Italian filone (or baguette)
- 1 cup of ricotta
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp grainy Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- Slice filone into even crostini-size pieces. Brush with olive oil and toast in oven for 5 minutes on each side at 350 degrees F.
- Mix lemon juice, mustard, salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil in large mixing bowl.
- Use a vegetable peeler to slice ribbons of asparagus and fennel into bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to serve.
- In a medium sized bowl, mix together ricotta, a splash of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.
- When ready to serve, top each of the crostini with a generous portion of the ricotta spread and the asparagus fennel salad.
- Serve immediately.
- Fresh basil or mint also works well as an extra addition to this recipe.
How to Eat Better is a series dedicated to the art of making the most out of your dining experiences, no matter how big or small. “Better” can mean healthier, larger quantity, cheaper, more extravagant, or more ethically sourced in different contexts. But for our purposes, “better” simply means maximizing enjoyment.
Disclaimer: This post was monetarily sponsored by Ruffino Wines. All opinions and creative direction are my own. As always with alcohol, please enjoy and drink responsibly.