Plan ahead. Event planner Bryan Rafanelli learned this most important aspect of throwing a party early in life. “When I was growing up, my old Italian aunts would set the table for holiday dinners three days in advance,” he recalls. “Back then, I never understood why.”
But when Rafanelli, who now runs Boston's premier event-planning business, became social chairman of his fraternity at Syracuse University, he realized how his aunts' early preparation and meticulous attention to detail paid off, making every big occasion a success. “Whenever I planned a party, I would go all out,” he says. “If it was a beach party, we would fill the front yard with sand. If it was a M*A*S*H party, we parked a Jeep on the lawn. People were always surprised at the lengths we went to, but they loved it.”
Rafanelli long ago graduated from frat parties. His 15-person team at Rafanelli Events Management, headquartered in the South End, organizes everything from the Boston Public Library's lavish annual fete to the most intimate weddings. His flair for the unexpected and refined keeps him in demand in society circles as far afield as Manhattan and Palm Beach.
So when we challenged Rafanelli to plan the ultimate summer dinner party, he began with an elusive yet enchanting theme: “citrus.” Instead of heading to the beach or grilling in the backyard, he put on an urban soiree that exploded with vibrant colors and summer's tangiest, most refreshing flavors. Rafanelli's pal Michael Schlow, chef and co-owner of Radius, agreed to design a menu echoing this theme, including Maine crab, mango, and avocado tarts with citrus vinaigrette; salmon with fresh peas; and a frozen lemon and tangerine soufflé dessert. The table settings were whimsical and lively Â— multicolored crystal glasses, exotic flowers in Crayola-bright glass vases (found on the cheap at Crate and Barrel), and do-it-yourself silk-covered menu cards. Playful candlelight and sultry samba music set a relaxed tone.
The result was pure fun. Strangers and old friends mingled easily. Even the host enjoyed the magical evening.
But then, that was all part of the plan. “If you've planned ahead Â— you're ready when the guests arrive, you feel good and look good Â— and, most important, you're happy, then your guests will feel the same way,” Rafanelli says. “And then you've got a great party.”
Guess who's coming to dinner? Any reason is a good reason to have a party, but the ultimate reason is to be with people you like and want to invite into your home. The guest list should be chosen with an eye toward the overall mix. Is there a coworker you haven't had a chance to catch up with? Has it been a while since you had your college roommate over? “Shake it up,” says Rafanelli. “Don't be afraid to mix people from different areas of your life. It's also good to have a few 'backup' guests in mind if someone is unable to attend at the last minute; choose close friends with flexible schedules and strong egos.”
Theme. Your theme is the party's foundation and its inspiration, allowing you to coordinate everything from flowers to food, music to menus. “I like a party to have an anchor,” Rafanelli says. “The theme can be subtle or outrageous. Once that is decided, the other pieces fall into place. While you're out and about, keep the theme of your party in the back of your head. An on-sale lime-green votive candleholder you never would have considered might now fit into your theme and budget.”
What's cooking? “Food is not my thing,” Rafanelli admits. “I can cook, but not at the level I wanted for this party. Luckily, I have some connections.” Namely, chef Michael Schlow. “Michael is incredibly talented, and he immediately 'got' what I wanted to do,” says Rafanelli. “He's so calm and steady. He was able to hang out with us and that was also important to me.” Of course, not everyone has a master chef's cell number. But, says Rafanelli, “with careful planning, even a modest cook can whip up an elegant meal.” Schlow designed a sophisticated menu than anyone can re-create.
Drink it up. Summer dining calls for crisp and lighter wines, such as sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, and rosato. “Establish a relationship with your local wine shop,” says Rafanelli. “Explain the mood of your party, what you are serving, and the money you want to spend.” A good wine seller can match the perfect wine to your menu. Fun idea for making cocktails: Create your own drink recipes and name them after your guests. Also consider serving a special nonalcoholic beverage, such as fresh lemonade. Be sure to remember all the extras involved with cocktails: lemons, limes, soda, and ice cubes.
Repondez s'il vous plait. “If I'm inviting people to my home, I want them to know they are special and that I'm going all out for them,” says Rafanelli. If you have a computer and access to a copy shop, you can design an invitation without investing a lot of time or money. For our party, Rafanelli had inexpensive coasters printed and mailed in simple, handmade paper envelopes. “If you're creative and have time, knock yourself out. But it doesn't have to be a three-day science project.”
Places, Everyone. Menus and place cards are another way to make your guests understand you care they're in your home Â— and to further reinforce your theme. “I prefer the look of hand calligraphy, but, again, the computer can be used,” says Rafanelli. “Find some great paper and mess around with different fonts.” He crafted a menu card using raw silk wrapped around card stock and glued a handlettered menu to the face.
Set the table. “It may seem odd to set the table the week before, but I do it all the time,” says Rafanelli. “This way you can rearrange and edit. Also, it gives you a chance to polish silver or dig out a serving spoon you'd never find if you are under stress. Turn glasses upside down so they don't get dusty inside.”
Rafanelli has some surprisingly simple suggestions to add that distinctive touch. “I am a big believer in using ingredients: Twigs of rosemary, whole fruit, tomato vines, rock salt, or whole peppercorns make great fill-ins for small spaces that need color or texture,” he says. “Also, mix old with new. Open your closets and take stock of what you have. I am shocked by the number of couples who never use their wedding china. Or use the monogrammed napkins that have been handed down to you. It's great conversation fodder.”
Flower power. Flowers are a must, adding color and fragrance, and the arrangements play into your theme. Speak with your florist, and be certain to discuss your budget. If the price has you worried, don't be afraid to use carnations or daisies. “A cluster of red carnations can provide an excellent splash of color,” Rafanelli says. “If you have a garden with flowers, use them. People will appreciate that.” Rafanelli Events creative director Billy Evers is adamant about the size of arrangements: “If you're using flowers on the table, under no circumstances should they be higher than 10 inches. I can't stress that enough. You and your guests want to be able to see each other. And why have a dramatic, gorgeous arrangement in the center of your table, only to remove it?” Evers also recommends that strong-scented flowers should not be too close to the food.
Listen to the music. The music is the soundtrack for your party. It should stay true to the theme but be flexible enough to adjust as the party goes. “Put the CDs in order so that during cocktails and hors d'oeuvres it's lively but not a dance club,” says Evers. “The same during dinner. Have some dance music ready in case you want to push back the couches and roll up the carpet, or samba on the balcony after dinner.” Evers suggests these CDs as a backdrop to your summer party:
Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo Remixes
Dimitri from Paris, After the Playboy Mansion
Hôtel Costes, Quatre
Koop, Waltz for Koop
Masters at Work, Our Time Is Coming
Various Artists, Samba Soul 70
Various Artists, Ultra Chilled '01
Various Artists, Verve Remixed
Lighten up. “Everyone looks good by candlelight,” says Evers. “Mix [the candles] up: Arrange them at different heights, group them together, place some alone.” He is not a fan of scented candles. “They conflict with the natural aromas of the food and flowers,” he says. “Use them in the bathroom.”
Conversation. This seems like an odd one, but Rafanelli recommends giving it a little forethought. “Conversations will and should develop organically, but I like to have a few topics or questions in the back of my head,” says Rafanelli. “It could be a question that has moral or ethical implications. Nothing too controversial Â— I don't want guests to be uncomfortable. Or I try to have a good story to tell.”
Color. Color is a big part of the party's theme, from the table setting to the decorations to the food. “For this party, the table was a blank, white canvas, no place mats or tablecloth, so we were able to be liberal with accessories,” says Evers. “At the same time, we didn't want it to be overwhelming or overdone.” Bright and bold citrus-colored vases picked up the color of the plates and the food's ingredients, so the flowers were simple but stunning.