Under the Tuscan Sun: Top Al Fresco Dining Tips
With long days and warm weather, summer is the season for al fresco dining. Treat your dinner guests to a magical outdoor feast when you create a delicious Italian-inspired menu to be enjoyed in a comfortable and relaxed setting. From the gourmet food experts at Supermarket Italy, get your fill of al fresco dining tips and pull off an epic bon appétito under the sun.
The Setting (le impostazioni)
The ambiance of dining outdoors might be dreamy and romantic but one annoying mosquito buzzing around the dinner table can easily ruin the mood. Keep the bugs away by lighting citronella candles, which should be placed on the perimeter of the outside area so the strong smell won’t waft over the dining table and spoil the food aromas. Another fail-safe for keeping away mosquitoes is a fan, which helps enhance natural breezes while air-blasting annoying pests away that weren’t invited to dinner. The key to bug control in the great outdoors is to pre-treat the area, because once the mosquitoes start biting, it’s hard not to notice the annoyance. If bugs are a problem, you could also keep them out with a screened in canopy tent, which can easily fit over a large table and chairs. If you’re in a high mosquito area, electric flyswatters are a must-have; simply wave it around and those bugs are toast.
Mood lighting is an absolute must for al fresco dining in the evening. Try using string lights for soft and diffused lighting or paper lanterns as an elegant statement piece. Add even more ambiance with candles on the table, an elegant detail that gives the dinner table a glowing effect. Always use unscented candles, which won’t interfere with the delicious flavors and aromas of the food and drinks. Also consider adding several tiki torches to your al fresco dining area. Alternatively, look for solar torch lights with a waterproof base, a lighting design that’s easy to use and non-flammable. These easy to use torchlights add warm accent lighting to your patio or deck with a flickering flame that mimics the real thing.
Food, friends, and family – the canons of the Italian way of life…and it wouldn’t be complete without music, a detail that’s considered just as important as the food. Listening to Sophia Loren or Dean Martin singing Mambo Italiano, for instance, has the power to evoke classic Italy and its Old World charm. Along with background music, get the party started with a few traditional sing-a-longs that most of your guests are familiar with, such as Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be). There are many genres besides Italian music to complement the particular mood of your dinner party, but a safe bet would be a playlist with mellow and relaxing tunes. If your Italian al fresco dinner follows a traditional theme, consider a playlist of classic Italian music, which you can easily find on any of your favorite music apps.
Table Setting Decorations
An elegant table setting makes any dinner extra special, especially al fresco dining under the canopy of the open sky. Tableaus that blend in with beautiful natural scenery is a big-time trend for outdoor dinner parties, like décor crafted from local foliage. For a fresh twist on the classic Italian table setting, start with a white tablecloth covered with plaid table settings in red. Along with unscented candles, place several potted basil plants on the table. Another option is the herbal bouquet as a table centerpiece, a simple detail that is sure to delight every Italian grandmother. You could also play up the color red with matching napkin linens placed on a salad and appetizer plate.
The Menu (il menu)
Spaniards have tapas and Italians have apericina, the name for pre-dinner drinks and finger food to stimulate l’appetito. A combination of apertivo (pre-dinner drink) and cena (dinner), apericina is an Italian tradition at restaurants – guests can enjoy free small plates with the purchase of drinks. At an al fresco dinner party, the mix of irresistible nibbles and good wine works like magic, putting everybody in a festive mood, especially in an intimate setting with friends and loved ones.
When it comes to pleasing dinner guests, make your al fresco dinner a hit by giving them lots of options. Start with a chilled bottle of wine or a classic sparkling Italian soda.
An iconic Italian aperitif, a Negroni, is the cocktail of choice in Italy, thanks to a blend of complex flavors from a combination of one part gin, one part vermouth rosso, and one part Campari. Garnish with an orange peel for a hint of zest, and add a splash of grapefruit bitters to dial down the sweetness and make it more like a martini.
Bellini cocktails are a fun and delicious way to feature seasonal summer berries at your al fresco dinner. The pureed blackberries and blueberries (or raspberries) add a balanced arrangement of sweet and tangy flavors to bubbly champagne (or prosecco for a drier version). A splash of berry liquor gives it an extra kick of flavor and a hint of sweetness. Garnish with mint and saluti!
Also, keep in mind that not everyone likes the sweet nectar. Make sure to include a few selections of nonalcoholic drinks. A crowd favorite is the Shirley Temple, a simple concoction of lemon-lime soda, ginger ale, and grenadine syrup over ice. Mix well and garnish with a Luxardo maraschino cherry for a festive touch and a splash of sweetness.
Meaning ‘before the meal’ in Italian, the antipasto platter is a traditional appetizer that features a plate of finger foods like cured meat, fruit, and cheeses. Serve it to your arriving guests and get ready to impress the Italian grandmothers or delight the newbies to classic Italian cuisine. Whoever shows up for your al fresco dinner, it’s the perfect way to whet everybody’s appetite.
Start with a small dish of deliciously briny Castelvetravo olives, a classic Italian finger food, plus an assortment of cured meats arranged on a large platter. Along with prosciutto and slices of summer sausage, make it a complete Italian charcuterie board with coppa capicola, a traditional Corsican pork cold cut, and speck, a popular type of smoked ham. To balance out the savory bites, also include seasonal fruit such as dried figs and cherries.
Add a fresh and zesty element to your menu with a light and refreshing summer salad that showcases seasonal greens. Watercress is an excellent choice because it grows in abundance in the summer. The thick and moist lettuce sprouts give any salad a satisfying crunch while keeping its texture when tossed with dressing. For an inventive twist on classic Italian food, add watermelon chunks and feta, a tasty combination of tangy and sweet that complements the mellow flavor of watercress. Finish the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which makes a delicious salad dressing with feta and its bright pops of flavor.
For a more traditional salad, a real crowd pleaser is the caprese salad, a simple mix of classic Italian ingredients, including in season tomatoes, basil leaves, and slices of fresh mozzarella. Add coarsely ground black pepper and salt, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and bon appetito!
As a main course, Ricotta Gnocchi makes a classic base for showcasing seasonal vegetables like asparagus and mushrooms. Add small pieces of prosciutto for savory bursts of flavor throughout and then bring it all together in a light cream sauce. The gnocchi can also be substituted with different types of pasta, depending on your preference.
Celebrate the bountiful harvest of the ocean with shrimp scampi, a simple, yet light and tasty dish that can be easily prepared. The deliciously briny meat of the shrimp soaks up the garlicky flavors and fresh herbs like parsley, tarragon, and chives.
Get a taste of la dolce vita with a dollop of lemon gelato, a bright and crisp flavor that takes after ice-cold lemonade, which has become the iconic summer beverage for its thirst-quenching power. With just five ingredients, this classic dessert is easy to make. If you don’t have time to make it from scratch, it’s also widely available at specialty gourmet stores. Finish the dish with sprigs of mint and raspberries for a bright and refreshing end to a dreamy al fresco dinner.
Good music, delicious food, a warm atmosphere of friends and family – when it all comes together Italian style, it’s pure magic.