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How to throw a dinner party for total strangers

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Cooking for unknown guests...scary or fun? (iStock)

I’ve made carbonara so many times that I don’t need to look at the recipe anymore. I’ve made it for friends, for family, to impress women on dates. Not that this simple Roman pasta dish is particularly challenging. In fact, that’s precisely why I was making it in my diminutive kitchen on a Tuesday night—because it’s as effortless as it is tasty. But as I grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano into familiar little mounds (to stir, later, into rigatoni with along with guanciale and raw egg), my stomach was in knots.

The source of my anxiety? 

I was about to feed a tough crowd: complete strangers who’d discovered me through a new dining service called EatWith. The program, which exists in several cities in North America, as well as in Europe and Israel, allows travelers to eat in the homes of locals. Or, depending on how you look at it, it lets locals (like me) host travelers for dinner. I had planned out a three-course dinner and posted the date, the menu/theme (“a strong Italian accent with worldly flair”; also, plenty of pork and gluten), and the price ($30, including drinks; EatWith also charges guests a 15 percent service fee). Within a week, five people had signed up to eat at my tiny apartment, in Manhattan’s West Village. And now they were almost here.

I had, of course, eaten with strangers before. As a food and travel writer for the last 12 years, I’ve made innumerable new friends over odd, eye-opening meals. In Phuket, I shared a table with a Thai family, and in Rome, where I used to live, I’ve been invited to join couples and extended families taking pity on this poor solo diner.

Now, however, dining with strangers is going big-time. EatWith, you see, is just one of many new services that let travelers and locals share a meal. Feastly, with networks in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York, and Cookening are similar to EatWith. League of Kitchens has a slightly different take: guests in New York City sign up to take cooking lessons in the homes of recent immigrants from around the world. And if you’ve ever wanted to break bread with Danes—and who hasn’t?—then Dine with the Danes has a place for you at the midcentury modern table. Even AirBnB, that $10 billion sovereign of the sharing economy, is reportedly getting into the cooking business with its own dining-with-strangers service.

In other words, if you’re not eating with, or cooking for, strangers right now, a ton of investment says you will be soon.

Actually, my EatWith dinner was not my first encounter with organized, Internet-facilitated stranger meals. In Bologna, I’d used the service HomeFood to eat at the home of a 50-year-old schoolteacher, whose dinner proceeded smoothly until we were nearing the end of the meal. That’s when a rotund Roman guest ignored traditional rules of decorum by grabbing the large serving bowl of tiramisu, hugging it close with one arm, and scooping the dessert straight into his mouth with the serving spoon. When he saw me, my mouth agape, he stopped eating for a moment and said, in English, without apparent shame, “I am very very pig.”

Indeed he was. And now here I was, hoping no “very very pigs” had signed up for my dinner. I wasn’t even serving dessert, perhaps for fear this might happen.

And then Hila—whose EatWith profile described her as an Israeli-born life coach who’d also lived in Italy—rang my buzzer, climbed five floors, and walked through my door.

“Wow!” she said, looking around my narrow apartment, which was lit mostly by candles and Christmas lights wrapped around the balustrade to the loft above us. On the hi-fi, I had a steady dose of feel-good music, mostly old Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Prince.

“Want one?” I asked, holding a large serving plate of crostini topped with smoked mozzarella, prosciutto, and Calabrian chile jelly. (Almost everything I prepared that night came from Buon Italia, a shop in Chelsea Market; including the wine I was serving—a $16 Rosso di Montalcino—the ingredients cost about $150, precisely what my guests were paying me.)

Hila took a bite and said, “Mmmm”—the groan of approval I had hoped for—then asked me about my former life in Rome: I’d lived in and around the capital to work on a book… about Jesus’ foreskin.

“I lived in Italy, too,” she said. “That’s where I learned how to cook—in various restaurants.”

Oh no, I thought, the nerves ramping up in my stomach. She’s a chef. Or at least a very good home cook. I suddenly felt the need for a strong drink.

“How about a Negroni?” I asked. The cocktail had come to mind not only because it’s particularly Italian and particularly simple to make, with equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, but because it was potent. That is, maybe if everyone got drunk, they wouldn’t notice how bad the food was.

Within a few minutes, my apartment buzzer began going wild. In strolled Susan and Mona, middle-aged women from New Jersey. And then Starr and her boyfriend, Dhruv, both in their late 20s, from right here in New York. These weren’t really the “tourists” I was expecting—more like locals experimenting with the edible sharing economy—although a second EatWith dinner I hosted weeks later was attended by guests from Norway, Holland, and Israel.

I passed the crostini platter and stepped back into the kitchen to pour a round of Negronis from the batch I’d made earlier. When I re-emerged into the living room, distributing glasses of the ruby-red concoction, Dhruv was just finishing a crostini.

“This is amazing,” he said. “What is this?” Everyone in the room stopped their conversation to hear me speak. I listed the short compendium of ingredients and Dhruv added, “I’ve never eaten anything like this. Where did you find the recipe?”

This is when I let everyone in on my secret. “Well,” I said, pausing to look around the room, everyone’s eyes on me, no one eating anymore. “I… I, um, most of what you’re going to eat tonight is ‘Italian’ in theory, but I didn’t get the recipes from someone’s nonna.”

Brows suddenly furrowed. Heads cocked sideways.

“I kind of just made up most of these things, but used Italy as an inspiration.” And this is key: Don’t stress yourself out by being a slave to authenticity. Go with your gut and alter a recipe if you like. 

“Well,” said Mona, “I love it.”

Everyone bobbed their heads in agreement, and resumed eating the crostini.

“Which brings us to course two,” I said. I went back in the kitchen and pulled from my refrigerator a large serving bowl: a farro salad spiked with bacon and kale. Why farro salad? Because it was a dish I could make in the afternoon and then set aside, allowing me to hang out with the guests rather than slave away in the kitchen. The bacon simply added a smoky flavor as well as a nice crunch.

Everyone was seated now, scattered around my living room on the couch and low-to-the-ground stools. The farro, I told the group, was likewise “Italian”—but also came from my curious culinary mind. “Farro,” I explained for the unfamiliar, “is a grain commonly used in Tuscany and regions in northern Italy.” And then I added, while scooping each guest a bowl: “But you probably would be hard pressed to find someone there serving it with pieces of crispy bacon and kale.”

“I like the way you cook,” Hila proclaimed between forkfuls of farro. “You’re right that an Italian would probably not do this. But we’re not in Italy. We’re in New York.”

For the final course—the rigatoni alla carbonara—I tried to be as traditional as possible. My only divergence from the standard recipe was that I’d be cooking the guanciale in a bit of white wine; I liked the subtle citrusy zing it brought.

Rigatoni alla Carbonara. Bon Appétit

But this was the dish I was most nervous about, because it was supposed to be my personal tour de force. If they didn’t like it, would it mean I’d failed as a home cook? That I couldn’t follow a recipe? That my friends had been lying to me all these years when I cooked it for them? This was, after all, part of my motivation for doing EatWith. I needed to cook for strangers. I needed to know if my skills were legit.

In my tiny living room, five people forked rigatoni into their mouths and began chewing.

After what felt like five minutes, Susan broke the silence. “You know,” she said, resting her fork atop the bowl of pasta. “I used to hate carbonara. It was too creamy. But this is the best carbonara I’ve ever had. Really.”

Everyone nodded, and a chorus of praise commenced.

“I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn,” Susan added, “and this is the real deal.”

I poured myself a celebratory Negroni, opened the night’s third bottle of Rosso di Montalcino, and shut off the kitchen light. Before me sat five no-longer-strangers—friends not just on Facebook and EatWith but in real life. And one day soon, perhaps, they’d be hosting me for dinner.

“Who wants more wine?” I asked.

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