This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
After our cooking class in Florence where we learned all the secrets of Italian cuisine, AND after investing in the bible of Italian cooking, we decided to throw a small dinner party with a few friends as a reason to put our skills to use. (That, and we had a great bottle of champagne that we wanted to share!)
Our menu plan for an exquisitely Italian al fresco feast with friends that you can make, too:
As we said, we had eight people for dinner on one of those late summer nights where the weather was just perfect. We had a blast hosting our friends on our rooftop deck, and while there was some prep involved, we did our best to simplify the menu to make it easy to throw together while our friends were here. Check out our party-perfect instructions and recipes below, so that you, too, will be saying "buon appetito" in no time.
Course 1: Aperitivo
First things first with burrata -- it is a delightful delicacy that is best served very simply and as fresh as possible. Burrata shines at room temperature, so be sure to take it out of the fridge 20 or 30 minutes before you want to serve it. We like to place it atop a bed of arugula and small pieces of fresh tomato, alongside crostini. Before serving the burrata, snip it crossways in the middle, and drizzle with olive oil and a small sprinkle of sea salt.
This is also great served on top of a bed of arugula is prosciutto. We like tearing the prosciutto up a bit so that no one is stuck with a huge piece all at once. Placing it on top of arugula ensures that you don't have a greasy plate or cutting board left behind, and allows everyone to get a green nibble as they'd like. We like adding some additional cheese on the plate, along with tomato for some impromptu caprese, as well as my favorite things in late summer, champagne grapes!
Course 2: Antipasto and Insalata
Antipasto: Homemade stuffed focaccia
The star of the show is a homemade focaccia, which is always a crowd pleaser. (Of course, you can purchase focaccia from a local baker, but we're always looking for an excuse to bake!) Baking the focaccia earlier in the afternoon allows you to simply throw the sandwiches together at the last minute, reducing prep significantly when your guests have arrived. Our two fillings of choice are a chicken caprese as well as a grilled squash and goat cheese (see the recipes below).
Insalata: Hearts of romaine salad with balsamic dressing
This salad comes together easily, and is perfect for a slightly windy night -- the Romaine hearts are kept intact so that they won't blow away like those tiny pieces of spring mix often do! It's very easy to serve.
Course 3: Dolce (AKA DESSERT): Apple balsamic over vanilla gelato
Finally, since we don't have our own gelato maker (but it is on the wish list!), we opt to purchase some gelato from a small company in Maine. Drizzled on top is the apple balsamic that we brought home with us from Florence, as well as some crunchy lemon cookies!
A nice, Italian-style digestif to go with dessert may include an espresso, or some grappa.
Recipes (serves 8)
Aperitivo: Burrata and charcuterie
- Fresh burrata (often found in the specialty cheese section -- we found it at Wegman's)
- 1 bag fresh arugula
- 1 small tomato, chopped
- 1 bag crostini
- 1 package prosciutto, salame, mortadella (or your choice of meats)
- 1 small package fresh mozzarella (or a soft cheese of your choice)
- 1 small block Parmigiano-Reggiano (or a hard cheese of your choice)
- Champagne grapes
Directions: Remove the burrata from the fridge 20-30 minutes before planning to serve. Arrange the fresh cheeses and meats on top of arugula on whatever serving plate or board you have on hand.
Antipasto: Homemade stuffed focaccia
- Focaccia: (adapted from a recipe from Mama in Florence)
Directions: Wash the potato, but don't peel it. Boil the potato in salted water until done and tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from water, and when it's cool enough to handle, remove the peel. Mash the potato using a ricer or masher. Add flour, sugar and salt and mix together.
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add to the dry ingredients. Combine the ingredients with your hands so that you can feel the change of the dough's consistency over time. It will be messy at first, but as you continue mixing the dough, it will begin sticking to itself and not your hands. When the ingredients are combined enough in the bowl, turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface and continue kneading the dough for 10 minutes, or until the dough is elastic to the touch.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl, and cover with a clean, dampened kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Allow to rise for about 2 hours in a warm place. After it's finished rising, place the dough in an oiled pan -- 9x9 is good for thick bread, or 13x9 for a slightly thinner bread that will serve more people. Push the dough out with your fingers so it fills the pan. Allow it to rise for another 30 minutes in the pan.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and place another pan on the bottom rack, halfway filled water in it -- this will keep the oven moist and will prevent the focaccia from drying out. Sprinkle the dough with sea salt and place in the preheated oven. Cook for about 20-25 minutes, or until the top turns light brown.
When done, remove from oven, and allow the pan to sit for a few minutes. When it's cool enough to handle, remove focaccia from the pan, and slice the in half lengthwise. Serve as soon as possible, adding the filling of your choice to the middle (see below for recipes).
- Chicken tomato caprese filling for focaccia:
Directions: Wash and slice the grape tomatoes in quarters. Set in a bowl, and sprinkle with some sea salt. Dice mozzarella and chicken into pieces slightly larger than the tomatoes. Mix in with the tomatoes. Wash and dry the basil, then tear into small pieces. Add the basil to the tomato, mozzarella, chicken mixture, then add some olive oil. Mix gently, and set aside until just before you're ready to eat. Add the mixture to the middle of the focaccia, and slice into manageable-sized sandwiches to serve.
- Grilled squash and goat cheese filling for focaccia:
Directions: Wash and slice the zucchini and summer squash lengthwise so they're about a 1/2 inch thick. Slice the onion into 1 inch rounds. Set in a bowl and sprinkle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Light the grill to medium-high and when hot, add the vegetables, cooking until light char marks are visible on both sides and veggies are tender. Remove from heat and cut into 1 inch cubes. Mix gently, and set aside until just before you're ready to eat. Remove the goat cheese from the fridge 15-20 minutes early so it's easier to spread on the focaccia. Add the zucchini, summer squash, and onion mixture to the middle of the focaccia, and slice into manageable-sized sandwiches to serve.
Insalata: Hearts of romaine salad with balsamic dressing (adapted from the Silver Spoon)
- 3-4 heads romaine hearts
- Balsamic vinegar
- Olive oil
- Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
- Fresh basil, parsley, torn into small pieces (or whatever fresh herbs you have on hand)
Directions: Wash the romaine hearts, keeping each head together as one. Dry the lettuce by gently placing it in a salad spinner. Cut each romaine heart into 4 pieces lengthwise. Place in a bowl and set aside until serving. For the dressing, it's not an exact science here...roughly 2 parts balsamic vinegar to 1 part olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice to add some acid if you'd like. Just before you're ready to serve, pour the dressing over the lettuce, tossing slightly, and then sprinkle some fresh herbs on top.
Dolce: Apple balsamic over vanilla gelato
- Small batch gelato (vanilla works best, but espresso is also a crowd pleaser)
- Apple balsamic vinegar
- Crunchy lemon cookies
Directions: Open the gelato, allowing your guests to serve themselves...there's no telling how full they are after a meal like this! Pass around the apple balsamic and instruct people to drizzle a small amount on top of their gelato...a little goes a long way! Serve the lemon cookies on the side for people to cleanse their palates and for a little crunch.