There is something sensual about an Italian feast. The way pasta embraces a twirling fork, its soft slither from plate to mouth, and the silky soups and heavy roasted meats. It’s the kind of cuisine that begs to be paired with an earthy wine, a flickering candlelight and soft music. Lovers and friends huddle up in corners of bars and restaurants, sharing food, laughs and good times.
But when fall arrives here in Portland and the days grow short and gray, most of us retreat to the warmth of our own homes for dinner rather than brave the bone-chilling air and light misty rain. As the days drag on, we laugh — with traces of annoyance — about the last time we saw the sun and we dream of vacations somewhere, anywhere, as long as it’s warm.
The dinner menu for those intimate autumnal feasts at home with friends are made for keeping spirits high and hearts and bellies full. There is no skimping on rich foods or wine. From start to finish, we dine decadently, telling ourselves we need it to stay sane: to survive yet another gray day.
On these nights I focus on comfort; bringing thick creamy soups, rich pastas, roasted meats, hot creamy drinks to the table, and creating a laid back vibe for the evening. I keep a fireplace crackling so guests stay warm and toasty and offer mellow music with modern jazz undertones to set a soft, sultry sound.
Because things like fresh pasta with squash sauce and mushroom-stuffed porchetta can take some time to assemble, I don’t worry as much about making elaborate cocktails or dessert. For drinks, I stick to wine, offering one red and one white from which guests can choose. A medium-bodied red wine is a good match for hearty pastas, while a crisp white complements richer meats. Either way, guests can’t go wrong. They can mix and match throughout the meal in accordance with their preferences.
As a host who spends days and hours preparing for dinner parties, I like to enjoy my time at the table with friends and family, taking part in the story-telling and laughter without the worry of a to-do list. To help me stick to that joy without being swept away with ideations of dinner party grandeur, I do desserts that are easily made ahead of time or simple to assemble. For a classic autumnal Italian dinner, there is perhaps no better dessert than affogato — the perfect balance of hot and cold, bitter and sweet to welcome the shifting of the seasons and the simple joy that comes with sharing a home cooked meal with friends.