When I spent some months in Venice, Italy, years ago, my friend Paolo would show up at dinner parties with prosciutto. I'm not talking about a paper packet of sliced ham but a whole prosciutto di San Daniele, the famous ham from Friuli, cured with the foot on. The host would hand him a glass of Prosecco, he'd pull his well-traveled prosciutto out of the bag and proceed to carve off slices as his contribution to the cicchetti (antipasti) spread. Brilliant. And after, it would go home with him to be trotted out for the next dinner party.
It's only polite when you're invited to dinner to ask whether you can bring something. When I'm giving a dinner party, I'm often stumped to answer the question, though. Wine geeks can bring wine. But for anyone else, my knee-jerk response is to say no, we don't need a thing. I've slowly come to realize, though, that it's not at all the right response because it leaves the guest frantically trying to figure out something suitable to bring and, in the end, makes the whole thing more painful than it needs to be.
If it's a semi-potluck, I might ask someone to bring a dessert or a first-course salad, things that are easily transportable. Or if a guest lives near the farmers market and always goes, I might ask if he or she could pick up some ears of corn or a couple of bunches of asparagus. Sometimes I ask people to bring some music they love or have just discovered, so we can enjoy it during dinner.
My friend Dan always comes up with something interesting. He's been known to show up with a Bo Diddley or Muddy Waters album from his archives or an obscure food book that maybe two other people in the world other than himself know. The other night, he arrived with a glass bottle of Broguiere's milk from the Montebello dairy, printed with congratulations to Jerry Hollendorfer for being "inducted to the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame" on the back. Perfectly timed, since I'd just run out of milk for my morning coffee.
Another friend always brings homemade ice cream. She asks which flavor beforehand and then arrives toting a giant cooler with the ice cream carefully packed inside, with plenty extra so she can leave a little behind. I'm always thrilled to find it the next day. My neighbor Sonya is the cheese specialist. Tight with local cheesemongers, she'll always show up with several cheeses, at least two of which no one else at the table has ever tasted.
I was invited to a dinner just before Christmas and another guest, a passionate baker, arrived with an array of rustic breads he'd made from a sourdough starter he's kept going for years. Commandeering a cutting board, he set to work sawing through the thick, delicious crusts. We all stood around the kitchen island, drinking Beaujolais and devouring slices of his homemade bread slathered with sweet butter.
Here's a thought. What if I made a list of items that might be very welcome, if not that night, then another evening? And so I've come up with some suggestions I'll keep at the ready for the next time someone asks what to bring to dinner. Here goes:
Olives (preferably Castelvetrano or Lucques) and Marcona almonds. These will be brilliant with the apéritif in case the host/cook is running late and needs something to keep the guests occupied in the meantime. And if not, they'll keep for the next occasion.
Fra' Mani salumi. Former Chez Panisse and Oliveto chef Paul Bertolli's dry salami were among the first to rival Italy's best and ushered in a newfound emphasis on charcuterie (now that we had the good stuff). I especially like his salame gentile, made in the style that dates back to 18th century Parma.
A bottle of rosé or Champagne from a good local wine retailer. Perfect for any occasion (or any cuisine). When in doubt, go with a small grower recommended by a knowledgeable wine merchant. Your host most likely won't already have that bottle, so it will be a discovery for one and all.
A pound of coffee beans from one of L.A.'s many independent roasters. I can't keep up, so many have been opening recently. Espresso beans from Intelligentsia or LA Mill are always welcome, but why not be the first to introduce Handsome Coffee Roasters, Trystero Coffee or Tonx beans to the assembled diners?
Handmade chocolates (plenty to choose from, the more local the better). Bring a pretty package of the latest creations from Valerie Confections, Madame Chocolat, Jin Patisserie or John Kelly Chocolates.
A bottle of unusual oil (walnut, hazelnut, even pumpkin seed oil if you can find it). These specialty oils come in small bottles and thus are an indulgent treat for a cook. Guaranteed to revitalize any vinaigrette. Iridescent green-red pumpkin seed oil is best used to garnish a pumpkin soup with a few artful drops.
An aged sherry vinegar. A good vinegar is hard to find and always a welcome gift. Pick up a bottle at a gourmet shop or even a wine shop. Sherry vinegar works magic in salads or marinated vegetables.
A glass vial of plump, moist vanilla beans. Every baker would love to have a stash of vanilla beans at the ready for ice creams, custards and cakes. I've found great ones at Penzeys Spices in Santa Monica and Torrance (they also do mail order).
A plate of homemade cookies. Mexican wedding cookies, cardamom butter cookies, shortbread, gingersnaps, sugar cookies in the shape of a shooting star would make anybody happy. They can save the cook whose own dessert hasn't turned out as expected, can play along with ice cream or sorbet or can go straight into the cookie jar for another day.
Artisanal soy sauce or Red Boat fish sauce. Most cooks have experienced only the usual commercial stuff, so a bottle of special soy sauce or this marvelous fish sauce is a revelation — and a treasure.
A salt cellar. In my saunters through flea markets, I like to pick up the tiniest bowls or containers — miniature spoons too — for use as salt cellars. They make fine gifts too, or the start of a collection. Fill up with your favorite salt.
A vintage mixing bowl. Another item to collect from a flea market and save for a favorite cook. Look for a beautiful color or shape.
Beeswax candles (tapers or votives). Everybody can use extra candles. Skip the scented varieties, which will interfere with the wines, and go for the luxury of plain beeswax candles tied with a ribbon. Someone once brought me a set of six beeswax votives, a present that I loved and always remember.
A bay laurel plant. The difference between fresh bay leaves and the dried ones is enormous. The beauty of bay laurel is that it easily grows in a container, so it's suitable for anybody with a sunny window.
A beautiful wooden spoon. My friend Alice once brought me a wonky hand-carved wooden spoon that she bought in a village in the hills of Mexico. I love it. You could even carve one yourself at one of the classes in hand-carved wooden spoons occasionally taught by a Japanese craftsman at Tortoise General Store in Venice.
The gift doesn't necessarily have to be expensive or even that rare, but it should be thoughtful and appropriate. For example, if the host has a kitchen garden, consider bringing seeds for chicory or pretty lettuces, even a pair of good-looking gardening gloves, a basket for harvesting produce or a vintage watering can. And who wouldn't love a bar of top-quality baking chocolate?
Think about what your host likes to cook, and you'll have an answer to the question of what to bring for dinner.