My First Dinner Party


Right before graduating from the University of Ohio, my roommate Cici and I decided to treat our boyfriends to a dinner at their off-campus (read ‘’cheap, shabby, and messy”) apartment. Neither one of us had ever entertained before without the watchful eye of our mothers directing from the sidelines. But, honestly, how hard could it be for two Italo-American college seniors to pull off a simple meal of spaghetti and meatballs?

With no recipe in hand and with the bravado of youth, we confidently sauntered into the local A&P to purchase the essentials for our dinner party. This is when I started to have misgivings.  I reminded myself that my father’s family was from the north of Italy, Cici’s from the south.  But being relatively shy and a stutterer, I held back and allowed Cici to take the lead. Mistake #1.

Cici confidently picked out the ingredients. Mistake #2.  Into our cart went one pound of hamburger meat, one bulb of garlic, one small can of tomato paste, a box of the cheapest spaghetti on the shelf, and a tall, thin canister of Kraft 100% Real grated Parmesan cheese.  Yes, the cheese which is actually mixed with cellulose, a filler made from wood chips! I want to be generous here in saying we might have also had some dried oregano in that basket but it’s doubtful.

Not even a gallon jug of Gallo’s Paisano wine—a jammy-sweet, take-off on a Chianti—could drown out the memories of that disastrous dinner.  Strangely enough, Cici—who commandeered the kitchen making it mistake #3—thought it was a triumph.  I, on the otherhand, was horrified. The guys politely worked their way through a plate of rock-hard meatballs served with over-cooked pasta smothered with a dense, cloying red sauce. Watching their Adam’s apples bobbing up and down as they diligently tried their best to swallow our spaghetti and meatballs was truly agonizing.

After that humbling experience, I was less arrogant as a novice cook. I began paying more attention to what was really needed to get a meal on the table.  No, cooking is not rocket science.  But it does require respecting some basic cooking principles, an understanding of ingredients and a willingness to follow —at least to some degree—what the experts say in their recipes.

After over 40 years as a serious home cook, I now know how to make deliciously spiced meatballs which are light as feathers.  My favorite recipe comes from my Italian grandmother, Maria.  You will find her recipe called Maria Spagga’s Meatballs in the “Dessert” section of the blog.

Over the years, my choice of wine has luckily also improved. Given my husband, Ed Lauber, was a wine importer and I spent my whole career in wine marketing, our spaghetti and meatball dinners—while actually simple fare—are often the occasion to break out a special red wine, usually a Sangiovese from Tuscany. 

Last time we enjoyed S&M, we discovered a bottle of 1983 Riserva Ducale in our rapidly dwindling wine cellar. Given its age, we decanted it.  The wine, a chianti riserva from the House of Ruffino, was still lively but with mature nuances, full of ripe plum flavors, a sotto bosco (underbrush) quality, and just a hint of licorice and mushrooms. While Sangiovese-based wines do not normally have the same ageing potential as say a Cabernet Sauvignon, aged Riserva Ducales rarely disappoint.  If anything, they are like meeting old friends again after a long hiatus and savoring their company and conversation over dinner.