Overheard at the Supper Table

Have you ever cooked a three-course meal for twelve? And many of these twelve are total strangers? Oh, and you’re hosting these people in your home? No? Neither have we… until last night.

10001369_555141174601392_1374762073_nOur friends have been gently encouraging us to do this,  since we like to throw dinner parties at Cerines. At one of these parties, a plan was hatched, though no one at the time really took it seriously. And it’s not like we had any frame of reference, since we’d never been to one. We really had no idea what to expect, save for the New York Times article that we read years ago on the subject: chefs invite people into your home who are desirous of restaurant-quality food with the ease of socializing in an intimate, private setting. At the end, the guest makes a donation suggested by the host.

We love to entertain so it wasn’t a total stretch. Cooking for birthdays and countless dinner parties over the years allows you to learn what foods work best for which event. Our first night at Cerines was spent preparing for Alessandro’s christening. Eighty people were invited and they all showed up. Check.

Cerines was designed and built for this purpose, actually. It wasn’t an accident that The Dining Room is the largest area of the whole house nor that the dining table was purposefully designed to separate into two, which can easily be moved to accommodate different seating arrangements. Seating for twelve at two tables? Check.

And since we entertain for large groups, anyway, we have all the things to set a proper table. Check.

But how would guests, some total strangers, respond to this? Would anybody really want to do this? With the help of friends, we sent out some feelers. The response was positive. Some months ago we set a date to coincide with the launch of the website. The symbiosis of the website and an opportunity to experience Cerines firsthand was too great an opportunity to put off.

One small little detail: neither of us are professional chefs. I went with food that was wonderful and fresh and local. Food that I would serve to my closest friends. Special but not fussy.

The inaugural Cerines Supper Club took place last night, a slightly cool evening, with twelve guests in attendance. Months of planning and a few days of preparation got us something that we never expected. It was the first time we had experienced a room full of virtual strangers come together and behave in a natural, unaffected manner. Like old friends, only some of these people were complete strangers. Right from the get-go. We’ve heard a lot of static about how people behave socially in these settings. I’ve been seated with people at a table with strangers and felt underwhelmed. Something was different.

Spritz was served on The Loggia along with towering rosemary and fontina breadsticks served upright in parchment paper sleeves. Crostini– made from our own ciabatta– were adorned with a smear of peas made from pinching freshly-blanched peas and mixing them with some chopped parsley, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. The avocado-like consistency needs little more than a pinch of coarse sea salt to capture the sublime creaminess of the now-in-season peas.

The first course, Bis o tris, was served once everyone was called to dinner. Heading to the dining room, guests found their seat, marked with a plain, white card. It is so easy and simple, it takes a mere five minutes to write everyone’s name on a card and then quickly decide who might make a good match. Nobody does this anymore, yet it is one of those details that facilitate comfort and familiarity, the keys to opening up communication among people. For the primo, we chose vegetarian strangolapreti (priest stranglers), stortarelli alla salsiccia and spaghetti alla carbonara. Just before serving, I demonstrated to our guests how to properly cook this last dish. The wines chosen were Italian: Pinot Grigio from Veneto and Tegole from Toscana. Glasses for both types were laid out at each place setting and one of the guests had both. She got a compliment from me. You should never waste the opportunity to have both vino bianco and vino rosso at the same meal.

The secondo consisted of a grilled pork chop seasoned with sage, rosemary and garlic and finished with a balsamic glaze.  Griddled polenta was served alongside, together with blanched green beans tossed with mint pesto. Appetites were now satiated. One guest couldn’t even make a dent in her pork chop, though her attempts were valiant. This did not keep her from enjoying the dessert, a Sicilian cannolo: cocoa and coffee dough wrapped around a metal tube and fried for 15 seconds. It’s then filled with a mixture of sweetened ricotta, lemon zest and bits of bittersweet chocolate. A two-tiered platter of the cannoli were served with strawberries interspersed among them. A dark-roasted coffee and espresso were served alongside. The final offering made to our guests were cordial glasses filled with limoncello or Sambuca, brought out on a tray. It always amazes me how this little touch is appreciated by so many.

At no point was there ever a lull in the conversation and one guest remarked that he couldn’t believe how quickly the evening had passed. At his table, another guest reported that the conversation was focused entirely around food networking. Jazz music played in the background and the fireplace was lit just as dessert was served. It was planned to have dessert in The Living Room. Everyone was so comfortable, they stayed at their table and some guests moved between the two tables.

So, what was it? What made this event so enchanting? Relative strangers, after three hours, were chatting and laughing like old friends. The vibe was too good to ignore. Was it that guests were asked to fill out the “Cerines asks..” questionnaire beforehand? Surely the food was delicious, the wine acceptable, the music good and the lighting set a glow to the entire space. While these four standard elements no doubt foster a great evening—moving them like levers to enhance the gathering­—the one element that a host has absolutely no handle on is what guests bring with them: buon umore. In Italian, it’s your ‘good mood’ that affects your attitude which, in turn, is picked up on by your fellow guests. It’s the host’s responsibility to provide a passionate display of all five elements. The onus, however, is on the guest to come to the party in the right mood, a buon umore. Last night, our twelve dinner guests came to Cerines feeling special, given a seat in The Dining Room to experience Cerines in a way few others have: a little pampered, treated to some familiar and some new food experiences.

Now with our first event behind us, we get that a supper club is more than just having a nice meal in a private, pull-back-the-curtain environment. No, it’s about connecting with people who have a buon umore, despite age and status that so often serve as obstacles to making those connections. It’s about the individual being part of a group, the group being defined by the quality of its individuals who are game for the experience. There is obviously a hunger for it, to nourish not just our body but our need to connect.

This  is the Cerines Supper Club.

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