Lifestyle Entertaining

I’m Always Hosting Aperitivo Hour—Here’s How I Put My Guests to Work

From La DoubleJ founder J.J. Martin.
Julie Vadnal Avatar
Colorful glassware on a table

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In her new book, Mamma Milano, the effervescent La DoubleJ founder J.J. Martin lists the life lessons she has gained as an American living in Milan, from the art of doing absolutely nothing to finding her creative spark. In this excerpt, she explains aperitivo hour, which she calls “holy time” in Italy. She tells us how to pull it off—and how to get your guests in on the fun.

The More the Merrier

Learning how to cook was not just a nice thing to do but a basic survival tool. The next step was learning how to invite other people into my home without a plan or a recipe.

Lesson 37: The Art of the Aperitivo 
Aperitivo hour in Italy is a holy time. It lasts well over an hour and is always fortified with enough tasty treats to keep Americans like me from complaining about the late-night dinnertime. The mark of an excellent Italian aperitivo is one that can be decided upon at the last minute (since no one likes a plan) and whipped up in less time than it takes to dry your wet hair.

A decent Italian kitchen pantry is always stocked with these essentials, so spontaneity is a cinch: awesome olives (always use the big, meaty ones); artisanal taralli crackers from Puglia; a towering hunk of 18-month aged Parmesan cheese that can hold ground like the Statue of Liberty inside your frigo all year round; a block of dry-aged meat (such as bresaola); a tasty vegetable submerged in great olive oil (such as roasted artichokes or eggplant); crispy artisanal-style potato chips; and multigrain seeded crackers.

These items last longer than most high school romances, and because of their longevity, you can do what the Italians do and invite anyone over anytime without any prior grocery shopping.

The key element, like all things joyfully Italian, is the following mantra: “The more the merrier!” So be sure to stuff your cocktail table with as many tasty treats as possible; mix and match your printed napkins with your printed dishes; and always, always, always be willing and waiting for your friends to show up with unexpected guests. It’s the best part of Italy’s beautiful game.

Two women in matching dresses with drinks
The author, left, at aperitivo hour. Courtesy of Mamma Milano

Lesson 38: Don’t Over-choreograph 
A healthy dose of serendipity does wonders for oiling up a rusty crowd, so you need to be flexible on format, timing, and attendees. Inevitably, half of your guests will be 45 if not 90 minutes late. This is fine.

Also, it’s practically guaranteed that one of them will bring another person to your house without any forewarning. These random extra people always end up spicing up the crowd stew. If you accept and embrace it, it boomerangs into something great. And, as I think I’ve mentioned before, don’t plan your dinner too far ahead. No one can possibly know how they will feel about coming three weeks in advance.

Lesson 39: Stay Cool and Have Fun
A picture of Italian entertaining grace is Rossana Orlandi, the 70-something matriarch of the Italian design scene. She has hosted enormous sit-down dinners in her showroom’s outdoor garden every April for the Salone del Mobile for as long as anyone can remember. I’ll never forget when I bumped into her on the street in Milan and she grabbed my hand and breathlessly reported: “The most exciting thing has happened. Alessandro Michele is at Gucci, and I want to shop at Gucci again and get everything!”

The woman who rocks the Gucci runway in her seventh decade on earth also throws dinner parties that are just as majestically unspooled. Guests are always seated under a net of wisteria and strings of draped lightbulbs, at tables decorated with fruits, vegetables, and lazy wildflowers. She hosts these soirees during Salone week, so she is always getting cancellations at the last minute, the food is never coming out on time…and Rossana could not care less. She is always the picture of grace and warmth. Whoever is in front of her and her giant, saucer-size, signature tinted eyeglasses is the most important person in the world, and she is always laughing.

The hostess is the party barometer—if she is stressed or irritated in any way, the entire party falls apart. Keep your cool, have fun, and if things are not perfect, just laugh.

Woman in leopard print outfit
Courtesy of Mamma Milano

Lesson 40: Mix Up Your Crowd
At her dinners Rossana has a mix of big-name architects and furniture designers, journalists, friends, and Milanese locals. If you mingle people from different creative industries with old people, maybe add a finance guy, throw in a kid and a dog, you’ve got an Italian guest list. Also, seated dinner parties are lovely for an intimate evening (I like eight, 10 people max), but informal ones are way better. We all do better as butterflies.

Lesson 41: Hire Some Help
Most Italians have some kind of help in the house—this is not a bougie thing, it’s cultural. You can cook to your heart’s delight—which I do, and you should—but I learned that, in Italy, no guest wants to see a harried hostess carrying dishes back and forth and cleaning up the mounting mess. I actually use my 68-year-old door lady, who is thrilled to put her five decades of cooking experience to good use for a very reasonable rate. She’s from Sardinia and does not know the meaning of light food. She prepares amazing risotti, ossobuco, veal cutlets, and pastas in my kitchen, and comes out for a reluctant bow afterward.

Lesson 42: …Or Put Your Guests to Work
When there isn’t help, everyone joins in. But they need to be given roles. After being a guest at so many casino dinner operations—where everyone was in the kitchen—I began to assign duties and ask for opinions from my own guests. Most of the people coming to my house were way better cooks, with far more talented grandmothers, so I decided to put them to work cocreating the meal. One time I sent Carlo Clavarino, a very fancy-pants aristocrat (who always has white-glove-and-silver table service at his home in Milan), straight to the kitchen: “Can you just go check on the pasta? Make sure it’s al dente.” He loved it. That was the night I discovered that the best way to put a male aristocrat at ease is to send him into the kitchen with an assignment.

Lesson 43: Dress Up, for God’s Sake
A bella figura takes you to a fresh state of mind. I love to wear a gown to my own dinner parties at home—and then be barefoot. The second part scandalizes the Italians, but it also relaxes them more.

Lesson 44: And of Course, Dress Up Your Table 
Always use the good china, even when you’re alone. I use and enjoy my best La DoubleJ plates and my parents’ wedding set every day. When friends visit, I go over the top adding layer upon layer of pattern, print, color, and flowers to create visual landscapes for everyone to enjoy. I’ll use one particular setting for a while, but then I love to change things up. Sometimes I’ll just re-create the entire setting from scratch, and I find this nonstop creative birthing on my table incredibly satisfying.

“Mamma Milano: Lessons From the Motherland” by J.J. Martin, Amazon

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Mamma Milano is published by Vendome.

Julie Vadnal Avatar

Julie Vadnal

Deputy Editor

Julie Vadnal is the deputy editor of Domino. She edits and writes stories about shopping for new and vintage furniture, covers new products (and the tastemakers who love them), and tours the homes of cool creatives. She lives in Brooklyn.