Chef Mario Batali, whose distinctive restaurants include Carnevino Italian Steakhouse in Las Vegas and Babbo, Del Posto, and Eataly—the newly opened 50,000-square-foot Italian-food überemporium on Fifth Avenue—in New York, relishes entertaining his family and friends at home. While his personal style may seem informal, as much thought goes into the meals he prepares in his private kitchen as into those that emerge from his commercial ones. Here he shares his ideas for throwing an elegant, low-key holiday dinner party.
What is your entertaining style at home?
We don’t entertain formally. Our kitchen is the center of our home, and our guests usually gather around and help. I like to involve my guests. Sometimes they will be chopping or scoring chestnuts before I roast them for dessert.
Do you make cocktails for your guests?
I like to create a make-your-own-cocktail area. I might put out the ingredients and tools for two different types of drinks and let my guests experiment. My favorite cocktails are blood-orange Bellinis and tangerine, Campari, and soda.
What do you prefer for appetizers?
I like to keep it simple and usually serve salami, cheeses, and a loaf of sliced bread. In ramp season, I might char the ramps on the grill and put them in a pile on the table. If I serve caviar, which I love, I buy it at Russ and Daughters [in New York] and serve it with Triscuits, sour cream, and chives. I don’t like a small taste;
I like people to have a heaping tablespoonful of caviar.
How do you set the table?
I use seasonal things as a centerpiece. If it’s between Halloween and Thanksgiving, I might use small pumpkins and wildflowers strewn across the table. I might throw cornmeal across the table along with some Brussels sprouts. Nothing is ever taller than a wine bottle, and I never have vases on the table, because it seems too formal. If I’m serving fancy wines that are 20 years old or more, I use the Riedel glasses.
How do you plan the menu?
I design the menu for the particular guests, and it’s always totally seasonal. For instance, when Peconic Bay scallops are in season, I just sear them for a minute and a half and put them on a plate. People pick them up with their fingers and eat them like candy.
What is one your favorite dishes to prepare for guests at home?
Daube, a classic French dish made with beef, red wine, orange rind, olives, carrots, and Cognac, all slowly braised for several hours.
What do you look for when selecting the wine for the meal?
A lot of thought goes into the wine; I serve a different wine with each course that works best for the food. I might start the evening with a sparkling wine, and sometimes the wine will be the leader of the meal. I have an ’85 Barbaresco, and I will select the food for that wine, probably braised beef or meat, not grilled steak or anything spicy.
Any tips on entertaining?
Part of the beauty of Italian chefs is that they never look like they are trying too hard. You want to enjoy the evening and your guests, so keep it simple by serving one big, dramatic dish such as lasagna or a roasted ham.
Choose seasonal, geo-specific foods, and you will have a great meal. A plate of fresh local asparagus with a drizzle of hollandaise is great. Raspberries on Christmas Eve are a bad idea unless you’re in Chile. If you’re in Chicago, serve guests a great local walleye fish. Celebrate your region or the season. Choose foods and wines that make you happy, and this will more than likely make your guests happy.