Food writer Skye McAlpine is known for her simple, approachable Italian recipes channelling la dolce vita. Here, she shares her secrets to putting on an outdoor dinner party from her charming Venetian home.
The story of how the little pink house on a Venetian backwater came to be my home is a serendipitous one. Unlike almost everyone else in my neighbourhood, I wasn’t born in Venice, nor is my family from there: we moved to the city when I was tiny, before I can really remember living anywhere else. I have no recollection of my first night in the attic bedroom, nor of seeing the city for the first time from the water. I do remember my mother telling me that we were to move there for a year – and my asking if this meant that I wouldn’t have to go to school. I was six. I did go to school, of course. And we stayed longer than a year; we’ve never really left.
As is the way for those who love to eat, my happiest childhood memories are centred on food. We had a small garden and would always eat outside during the summer. I have so many memories of lunches under the shade of the leafy fig tree, and of long dinners scented by citronella candles, when the heat had finally broken and it was lovely and cool. We ate simple dishes like melon and prosciutto, tomatoes and mozzarella or cold pasta salads – things that didn’t involve spending too long in the kitchen. Dessert would always be easy and fresh – ice cream, sorbet, panna cotta or chunks of ice-cold watermelon.
If you know Italy well, you will know that each region boasts its own distinctive cuisine, just as it speaks its own dialect and exhibits an indefatigable sense of regional pride. It is perhaps not so surprising when you think that Italy only became Italy, as such, in 1861. Before that, it was simply a collection of independent principalities and city states, which shared little more than geography. All of this is by way of explanation of the fact that when you talk to a Sicilian about Italian food they will regale you with tales of pizza and cannoli. When you talk to a Roman, you will hear of deep-fried artichokes and cacio e pepe. An Italian’s view of “real Italian” food is still determined by where they are from, just as their views on how tomato sauce should be prepared is determined by how their own mother cooks it. The one constant across the country is the simplicity and passion with which Italians cook and eat.
For me, that’s what it is all about, especially in the summer. I like to cook in a relaxed, convivial way, focusing on enjoying time together with friends and family. We tend to give ourselves a hard time when hosting, feeling the need to put on a show with an extravagant affair. Yet what I enjoy most is really simple food, such as a roast chicken served with salad or potatoes. Making things easier for yourself as a host can make it more enjoyable for your guests too. I like to prepare as much ahead of time as possible, so that I can sit and drink rather than be in the kitchen or feel rushed. If I’m cooking a casual lunch for friends, I often take advantage of things that I can buy pre-prepared, such as a bag of salad that I will top with pecorino, or juicy tomatoes and mozzarella that I will serve simply with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and fresh mint.
In Italy, a tavola is the call to lunch. The interruption of daily business to make time for a good meal is as punctual as the bells chiming one o’clock, and it spreads across the city like a thick, muffling blanket. I must admit, I don’t always find time to pause for lunch these days – at least not properly, for the three-course meal of primo, secondo and dolce as other Venetians do. But even if I don’t observe the lunch hour as strictly as I might, I value its spirit in the way I cook. We always do our best to eat as a family – that at least is set in stone. And because ritual is everything when it comes to food, I take as much care laying the table whether we’re sitting down to a plate of scrambled eggs on toast or a celebratory feast. I do this because I enjoy it: food tastes better when you eat it off a nice china plate, with a proper knife and fork, and with a cheery bunch of flowers to decorate the table.
Wherever possible, I try to entertain outdoors. Somehow food always tastes better al fresco, and if you grow up in Italy, you have a very strong sense that there is a right and a wrong way to eat things. I always keep it really simple with a meal that can be eaten cold or requires little fuss so that I’m not running back and forth from the garden to the kitchen. From the farro salad in my book, which combines baby artichoke, broad beans, garden peas and salty ricotta, to melon with thin slivers of prosciutto, I favour simple, flavourful and colourful food that I can prepare in advance and bring to the table when everyone is ready to eat.
My love of entertaining is definitely a passion that I’ve inherited from my family; my mother always believed that it makes no difference whether you’re cooking for four or for eight. For me, entertaining is therefore about bringing people together, celebrating old friends and making new ones. I always have an open-door policy for friends of my guests, or if I’ve met someone that I would like to get to know better I will invite them to join us all for a Sunday lunch. As much as I love to eat, my favourite part of the meal is always that bit after lunch or dinner, when you linger on at the table, help yourselves to a second portion of dessert, sip on your coffee and chat. You know it’s been a good meal when no one wants to leave! I love the aftermath of a good supper party too – it’s a chance to relive the fun of the night before.
As for ingredients, like most Venetians, I shop seasonally and locally at the market every day. You won’t find kiwis or mangos at the Rialto market, though in winter there are piles of wine-coloured radicchio and, come spring, baby artichokes – so tender you can eat their petals raw – heaped high on the stalls. There is something comforting about the seasonality of the market: it is never-changing and, at the same time, ever-evolving. Blink and the garden pea season will have passed you by, but no matter because you have it to look forward to next year, when it will be back just the same. My recipes promise this, too: food that will bring friends back year on year, time and time again.
The above is an edited extract from “A Table in Venice” (£26, Bloomsbury) by Skye McAlpine, available here.
Skye McAlpine’s summer entertaining tips
Set the table
Setting the table with nice plates, cutlery and glasses makes even the simplest of meals feel special. Fill a jug of water with sprigs of mint, lay out bowls of fruit, and light candles. For a special occasion, a white tablecloth can transform the energy of the space.
Collect your crockery
I love to use vintage crockery; whenever I see something I like, I snap it up. I’m always drawn to pink, turquoise, soft green and white but it’s more about the feeling that I get when I look at it. In London, I love shopping at Petersham Nurseries; it sells beautiful pieces.
Fill up with flowers
Peonies are my favourite when in season but you can never go wrong with roses. If eating in a garden, cut flowers and foliage from your surroundings are a lovely addition. Mix herbs like sage and rosemary into small posies to give texture and scent.
I don’t bother with starters; I just do a main dish with salads and sides. And then pudding, always. It makes for a much more relaxing rhythm. While guests are arriving, I put out olives and some manchego or Parmesan for people to nibble on over drinks.
You can ensure tastier food by shopping seasonally, as the Venetians do. Just because it is on the shelves, produce won’t be at its best if it isn’t in season. Look at where the food has come from; the less it has travelled, the more deliciously fresh it will be.
Images: courtesy of Skye McAlpine.