New York caterer Mary Giuliani regularly works with A-list clients in the worlds of art, fashion and film but she doesn’t take herself—or the food—too seriously. Instead, she’s all about having fun, especially if that means serving mac n’ cheese off a mini Ferris wheel (yes, really!) or cocktail punch out of a cookie jar. “I want to create experiences that are unique and whimsical,” she says, “but are also comfortable and approachable.”
Giuliani grew up in a household that cherished good food and great conversation. Her mother loved to cook and her grandmother owned hotels in Montauk, NY. “I got the hospitality bug from her,” says Giuliani of her grandmother. “I would watch her welcome tourists, throw cocktail parties and host elaborate celebrations.” After graduating from Georgetown University, Giuliani decided to pursue acting, landing her first job as a coat check girl at Nobu restaurant in New York City. The stint didn’t last too long. “I was fired and given the honor of being called the most inconsistent, unreliable employee they ever had,” she admits. She bounced around in a few different jobs until one day she spotted an ad in The New York Times from a catering company that needed temporary help. She got the job—and was immediately hooked. “I realized that planning events combined theatrics, great food and hospitality—it brought all of my worlds together.”
These days, Giuliani is a star in her own right, having hosted parties for The Rolling Stones, the Tribeca Film Festival and plenty of Hollywood heavy weights. In 2013, she teamed up with celebrity chef (and friend) Mario Batali on a catering collaboration called Mario by Mary. Last January, the duo launched their fast-casual Italian sandwich-and-soup shop in New York’s gourmet food hall, The Pennsy. In between all this, Giuliani wrote a book, The Cocktail Party: Eat, Drink, Play, Recover, and helped open a restaurant and boutique hotel in the Hudson Valley with her husband, producer Ryan Giuliani. After planning events all day, you’d think Giuliani would want to take a break in her down time. “But I actually love inviting friends over,” she says. Here, Giuliani shares unexpected pointers for having a relaxed spring gathering, starting with this bit of advice: “You don’t have to hire a caterer or be a chef to host a great party,” she says. “All you really need is the desire to open your home to others.”
How do you describe your style?
Simple yet special! I take ordinary food and create extraordinary experiences around it.
What types of parties do you love for spring?
This is my favorite time to entertain because of all the great things growing outside. I love doing a “drink your garden” theme with a menu that includes fresh herbs and garnishes or fresh-pressed juices that you can just add alcohol to. I also love grilling everything in my garden. There are so many great fruits and veggies you can throw on the grill, like beets, peaches and kale. They’re all so delicious and look pretty on the table.
What’s changing about the way people entertain now?
I think we’re craving special simplicity. We are all so nuts, and busier than we’ve ever been. No one has the time to make a chateaubriand steak anymore, so we’re looking for ways to still entertain in a warm and grand way without overdoing it.
What instantly makes a party unique and fun in your opinion?
Do something completely unexpected! Put your table outside, serve breakfast at midnight, or create an after-dinner dance party in the garage.
Which foods are always a hit to serve?
I always have pigs in a blanket, the makings for a cheese board—one hard, one soft, one stinky—at least two bottles of white wine chilling in my fridge, and a bottle of Casamigos tequila on my bar. That makes me party-prepared at all times.
Speaking of tequila, what’s the secret to helping guests—and the host—loosen up and mingle?
Booze! As the host, always give yourself time to prepare. Put the music on, fix yourself a gimlet, and enjoy the actual ritual of the set-up as much as you hope to enjoy the actual party. If you enjoy the pre-party it will be felt by your guests throughout the night.
How can you give sit-down affairs that same laid back vibe?
Instead of place cards, I’ve been encouraging hosts to set the table with funny, nostalgic pictures of their guests, which serves as an ice breaker and is fresher than a normal place card.
Any advice for hosting a party with kids, and keeping your sanity?
Growing up, my family always sat kids at the table with the adults. It’s where you learn so many things about other generations. Kids love cooking now more than ever so getting them involved in your party prep is fun for both of you. Those tiny hands are very good at making little hors d’oeuvres!
What’s the best party “mistake” you’ve made in your career?
The pigs in a blanket bar that has become one of our signature dishes came from a last-minute party at home where all I had in my freezer were pigs in a blanket. I decided to put them out with a bunch of different toppings—and that’s all I served. People went crazy for it and thought it was great. And I only did it because I didn’t have any other food!
You’ve worked closely with chef Mario Batali for years. How did you first meet?
I met Mario seven years ago when I was hired to cater one of his cooking demonstrations. We immediately clicked. Our food sensibilities are similar, we have a shared love of gathering people together through the ritual of food and drink, and we both grew up cooking with our mothers and grandmothers. He would often get phone calls asking for a caterer and would recommend me. We soon realized that enough people wanted the Batali experience outside of the restaurant and decided to combine the very best of his food with my party expertise. That’s how Mario by Mary was born.
You’ve spent quite a bit of time in New Canaan, CT. What do you like about this area?
When I first launched my catering business, my chef lived in Weston, CT, so our catering kitchen was actually in Connecticut. When visiting that kitchen, I fell in love with New Canaan. To offset the craziness of life in New York City, I will often jump in my car and drive into town for the day to recharge the batteries. It’s such a beautiful town with so much to do. Last October, I was asked to speak about my book, The Cocktail Party, at the New Canaan Library, and it made me fall in love with the town and the people even more. That’s why I’m so happy we’re extending our catering services to the area!
What do you love most about being a caterer?
That no two days are the same, that I get to work with the most creative people on the planet and that we get to provide experiences through food, beverage and décor that tell a story.
Who is the dream client you have yet to work with?
Bill Murray! I am a huge Saturday Night Live fan and the opportunity to work with anyone from that era would be a dream come true. I also think, with his sense of humor, he would really appreciate the silliness of some of our catering ideas.
EAT + DRINK+ PLAY + RECOVER = THE PERFECT PARTY EQUATION
EAT: “Small bites make people happy! I like to take comfort foods—mac n’ cheese, hot dogs, grilled cheese—and shrink them to hors d’oeuvre size. I also like to set up “Snactivities” or food bars where guests can customize their food.”
DRINK: “Small bites and big drinks brings you close to party perfection! I like to offer drinks in large quantities served in a punch bowl, drink dispenser or any vessel that can hold a batch of cocktails.”
PLAY: “Use your existing housewares—plates, trays, napkins, cake stands—in a new a creative way. For example, I have a great collection of cookie jars that I looked at and said, ‘Why just for cookies?’ so I now serve specialty cocktails out of them.”
RECOVER: “Well, if you’re anything like me, you may have helped yourself to too many punches from the bowl. I like to leave the host with remedies for the day after the party. Lately, I’ve been doing hangover smoothies made from green apples, kale, lemon, ginger and a bottle of water. You can just throw it all in the juicer and start the day off on the right foot.”
FIVE PARTY RULES MEANT TO BE BROKEN
- Throw away place cards. Guests are more comfortable when they can choose their own seat.
- Dance in the middle of a dinner party. If an impromptu dance party erupts at your gathering, you’ve succeeded.
- Skip red wine if you’re afraid of spills. You also don’t have to display every liquor bottle in your house at your party. Less is more.
- Dessert-and-drinks- only is totally acceptable. It’s an easy way to invite guests over.
- You don’t need to clean or cook for days. Toss the idea that if your house is not perfect or you aren’t a great cook that entertaining is not for you.