Location: West Village, New York

Host(s): J.F.R.

Occasion: Last minute dinner

Menu: Pasta alla Puttanesca/ Green Salad with Shaved Fennel/ Cheese / Chocolate & Mandarins
Sometimes the best dinner parties are those thrown together at the last minute. You suddenly have access to a wonderful space, or the day takes a turn and becomes beautiful, making you change your mind about wanting to hole up with a book and a movie at the end of the week. You call up meaning to invite one or two friends, don’t reach them, so you keep calling other friends extending the invitation… and then suddenly EVERYONE accepts. You have a dinner party on your hands. That’s what happened this past weekend when my friend J.F.R. was cat-sitting in a lovely apartment in the West Village. Around four in the afternoon she started calling a couple of friends and by nine o’clock we were twelve people sharing a simple dinner of Pasta alla Puttanesca, a crisp salad with fennel and an array of decadent cheese brought over by friends, followed by sweet mandarins and good chocolate bars for dessert. All of this accompanied by many bottles of wine.
We’ve come up with a theory: The best night for an impromptu dinner party is Saturday night. During the week, everyone is overbooked with commitments from work obligations to social outings. On the weekend people are so tired with their over-planned week that they often make no plans at all. And since trying to get into a great restaurant could mean hours of waiting, your friends are going to quickly accept your dinner invitation.
Some of best dinner parties are not even focused on food, they are about the company, the delight in a spontaneous gathering. This meal was by far my favorite meal of the week, even though I had been to a couple of hot New York city restaurants over the preceding days, where I ate fancy renditions of lamb, smoked trout and halibut with preserved Meyer lemons, but nothing can beat unexpectedly good company. On this night, thanks to J.F.R’s lovely open disposition towards life and people, we all hailed from different backgrounds and places – a few people in town from Ireland, others from England, a couple from Washington D.C. We talked about politics, the environment, film, theatre and even the Dalai Lama. At midnight one group left to go to a screening of their film in a local film festival and another group arrived from seeing the new production of Julius Caesar at BAM. Without even leaving the house we were immersed in New York City culture. And the late arrivals didn’t miss a beat. “I love cold pasta!” I overhead one of them exclaim, the perfect thing to say to our beautiful hostess who had taken such good care of us all. I could have stayed all night, and the conversation never lagged. But I could feel my eyes closing against my will to stay – the struggle of a good night.
This is a great last minute dish for entertaining because you don’t necessarily need any fresh ingredients.  You can make it out of what you have in your pantry.

Serves 4-5

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ onion finely chopped
2 garlic cloves lightly crushed
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 anchovy filets finely chopped
28 oz. pureed tomatoes (can be from a box or can)
1 ½ tablespoons capers (rinsed and soaked in water for 10 minutes if they are packed in salt)
½ cup black olives, pitted and chopped
½ lemon
salt to taste
1 pound short pasta (penne or rigatoni work well)
a handful of coarse sea salt
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or basil (optional)
grated parmigiano reggiano to serve

Heat olive oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium heat, when it’s hot add onion, garlic, and red pepper.  Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add anchovies and sauté for a minute more, mashing the anchovies with the back of a spoon so they disintegrate. Add tomatoes, capers, olives, lemon and salt to the skillet. Simmer over medium-low heat partially covered until the sauce reduces a bit, about 20-25 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a handful of coarse sea salt, add pasta and cook until tender but firm (usually about a minute less than what is stated on the box of pasta). Reserve a cup of the cooking liquid and drain the pasta. Put pasta back in the same pot, add the sauce (you may not need all of it) and some of the reserved cooking liquid, stir. Garnish with herbs and serve immediately with grated parmigiano.