Donatella Arpaia’s passion for food was formed at a young age. Spending summers at her grandfather’s Italian olive farm, growing up in her dad’s restaurants, and learning from her Mama Maria were invaluable foundations of her cooking. Since opening her first restaurant, Bellini, in 1988, Donatella hasn’t stopped. The former lawyer-turned-culinary-mogul and Food Network star shares her love of cooking and entertaining with us, bringing fun, drama and personality to your table.
Summer brings a constant flow of guests to my lake house. While I love to entertain and cook, I also want to relax and join in the fun. That means finding ways to spend less time in the kitchen so I can spend more time swimming.
Here are my go-to tips for summer cooking and entertaining
Tip 1: Don’t neglect presentation
Remember we eat with our eyes first, so ditch the paper goods and plastic cups in favor of real plates, glasses, and gorgeous platters. And don’t be afraid to mix and match. I use fancy platters right alongside wooden cutting boards to create an eclectic look that suits my personality. If you present food beautifully it looks like you spent a lot more time in the kitchen!
Tip 2: Master the art of “food assembly”
By food assembly, I mean quality and variety over quantity. You want light appetizers so your guests save room for the main event. In the summer, I often create beautiful vegetable, cheese and meat platters, so guests can graze at their leisure. To try this on your own, buy three types of bakery breads instead of dinner rolls … perhaps raisin-nut or olive bread, a ciabatta loaf and thin breadsticks for drama. Use the same approach when selecting cheeses. Pick a country and a variety of ages. Italian aged Parmesan and a softer cheese are a fantastic combination.
Tip 3: Master a “go-to” appetizer or side dish
Your go-to dish should be tasty and easy to make … and automatically give you culinary credibility. My fail-safe dish is prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with gorgonzola (see recipe below). I love that I can prepare them ahead of time and simply pop them in the oven or on the grill. These elegant bites are a welcome departure from the usual chips and dip.
Tip 4: Experiment with seasonal veggies
If ever there’s a time to get out of our broccoli and corn rut, it is summer! At market, buy a variety of colorful, in-season vegetables. If you can go to a farmer’s market and try new vegetables, even better! Just brush with extra virgin olive oil, add great quality salt and pepper, and put them on the grill. They’ll look simply irresistible on a more formal platter (see Tip 2 above).
Tip 5: Create a star of the meal
I always like there to be a “star” at an event. For example, buy the best-quality steak that fits your budget. If it’s a lesser-quality cut like hanger or skirt steak, use a marinade to tenderize and add flavor to the meat. If you invested in a gorgeous T-bone steak, then less is more. I love this simple recipe for “bistecca Fiorentina.” Hint: make sure you take the meat out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before grilling. Bringing it to room temperate ensures that your steak cooks evenly.
Tip 6: Get others to help
Don’t be afraid to enlist friends or family to help, and also don’t be afraid to boss them around like a chef does in the kitchen! Dub them your sous chefs, and make sure they execute exactly what you want. I put my husband in charge of the steak, and he can give it his full attention while I prepare the final touches on the rest of the meal. I would hate to overcook one of those gorgeous babies. Reward any helpers with plenty of kisses and good wine!
Simple Summertime Menu
Mixed Cheese, Olive, and Bread Appetizer
Grilled Mixed Vegetables
To drink: A big Italian red, like the Tenuta-di-Somaro-Aglianico-Primitivo 2013. This Aglianico-Primitivo blend from Puglia is part of the Frontgate Estate Wine Club. Its ripe, sweet/dark fruit complements the figs and salty/umami qualities of the cheese and cured ham, while the good tannic structure from the Aglianico is perfect for the steak.
Baked Figs with Prosciutto & Gorgonzola
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
12 fresh black mission figs
6 ounces gorgonzola
6 slices prosciutto, halved
Salt and pepper
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Preheat a pizza oven, conventional oven or grill to 350°. Make a shallow “x” with a sharp knife into the body of each fig. Gently press 1 ounce gorgonzola into each fig. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each fig 1½ times, leaving the top exposed.
Arrange the figs stem end up on a lightly coated baking sheet or ceramic baker. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 12–15 minutes until prosciutto is crispy. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and serve.
3 T-bone steaks, about 1”–2” thick
2–3 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
6 whole garlic cloves, smashed
Zest of one lemon
Freshly ground pepper
Coarse salt (prefer a smoky black salt)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3–4 large rosemary sprigs
Rinse steak and pat dry. Combine rosemary, salt, pepper and garlic with 1 Tbsp. of extra-virgin olive oil to help rub adhere to meat. Rub into both sides of meat. Cover with plastic wrap, and let meat come to room temperature, about 30–60 minutes.
Preheat gas grill. Remove whole smashed garlic from steak, and discard. Place steak on hottest part of grill and lay rosemary sprigs right next to steak. Cover grill and cook until meat is well charred on one side – about 10 minutes. Turn steak and cook on other side for another 10 minutes or until internal temperature registers 120 (for medium-rare).
Set your table apart with outdoor dining inspiration from our Pinterest board.