Transport yourself -- and your guests -- to a breezy Italian cafe with this menu.
Half the fun of entertaining is the way your senses are heightened; they come alive the minute you start shopping and cooking. Take, for example, this menu inspired by the foods of the sun-drenched Amalfi Coast. There is immediate tactile pleasure in its techniques: Your hands tear juicy tomatoes and sweet-smelling basil for pasta sauce and squeeze lemons over crushed berries for cocktails. What you see, smell, and feel -- and later taste, each course slowly enjoyed one after another -- is transporting, despite the meal's simple preparations.
I love to start winding down for the evening with a signature cocktail. Mash up a pile of raspberries with mint, vodka, and Prosecco for drinks that will awaken your palate (and your table's palette). Tease your taste buds further with an instant antipasto of fresh-from-the-produce-stand fennel and carrots. They need no more than salt as an accompaniment. The recipe for the make-ahead tomato sauce, one of my favorites, was told to me by a Neapolitan farmer. He readies it before dawn to "cook" before heading out to the fields; throughout the day, the flavors of the garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, and basil all meld together.
The minted tuna steaks and green beans are similarly unfussy but traditional. The fish is thin and quick to saute and is delicious hot, at room temperature, or cold. Low, slow cooking makes the beans softer -- typically Italian, a tasty alternative to the slightly cooked vegetables we're now accustomed to. Pour a crisp, cold white wine -- I like a Vermentino or Trebbiano.
To keep things easy on myself, I favor simple desserts like flavored ricotta cheese, biscotti, and fruit. Finally, offering a dessert wine, such as Vin Santo, encourages friends to linger a little longer, extending those few hours when life slows down enough to savor.
A Few Days Before: Plan the menu, check your pantry and refrigerator for items on hand, and make a shopping list. Purchase vodka, Prosecco, and wine.
The Day Before: Make the chile oil. Wash and dry the fresh herbs and refrigerate them, wrapped in damp paper towels. Place the fish order if necessary. Buy flowers.
The Morning Of: Assemble the pantry items and set the table. Make the tomato sauce. Drain the ricotta and refrigerate.
1 1/2 pints raspberries
Fresh seasonal fruit, such as grapes and peaches
7 medium tomatoes
1 pound green beans
10 garlic cloves
Fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 pounds ricotta cheese
1 wedge Parmesan cheese
1 pound pasta, such as fusilli or spaghetti
2 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate
Chopped nuts or raisins (optional)
1 box store-bought biscotti
1 bottle Prosecco (or Lambrusco)
1 bottle vodka
6 tuna steaks
Crushed red pepper flakes
Extra-virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar