My plan was to try to host a relatively large number of people (14 was the final total) while keeping things inexpensive and simple. I violated the inexpensive rule days before the party when I selected the items for the cheese tray; the English Blue Cheddar and the Boucheron looked so good at Surdyk's I couldn't resist, and once I'd gone that far why not go with the somewhat pricey cave-aged Gruyere? At the core, though, pasta and cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste really are quite inexpensive, as main ingredients go. The excellent Italian sausage I picked up at Cossetta's (where they explained how to twist the ropes of sausage into links, and how to cook it) wasn't all that expensive, especially considering how delicious it was. In fact, I think the four loaves of French bread I picked up at the Wedge for the garlic bread may have cost as much as the sausage, although I'm not sure.
The final menu: Appetizer trays with four kinds of cheese and country pate, served with crackers. Mixed greens salad, with vinaigrette made from balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil with fresh tarragon and bacon on the side. Rigatoni with long-simmered spaghetti sauce. Italian sausage, browned and then covered with the sauce and put in the oven to heat up with the garlic bread. Douglas made two different kinds of ice cream, and Jim brought a rich wonderful gourmet cake (I wish I remembered the name and the baker). This turned out to be plenty, both in quantity and variety. People ate an awful lot of food, which pleases the Jewish mother in me to the bone. All of this was served on Fiestaware dishes.
I had Italian white wine and Australian red wine (various bottles) and fancy Belgian Ale, but all anybody drank that was alcoholic was the red wine. ("It's what was advertised," said Douglas.) In fact, a good proportion of the guests arrived with a work-weary look and demeanor and were very happy to be offered a glass of wine immediately. I provided many bottles of sparkling Italian mineral water, which went over well. And get this: I forgot to make tea and coffee when it came time for dessert! It was a group decision, when to bring out the desserts, and I got distracted with finding the right plates and utensils and then we all broke up into dessert-happy groups. While Jim and Denise and Matt were washing the dishes later and I stood guard and chatted it hit me with an embarrassed thud that I'd forgotten these beverages (as I showed Jim the tea I bought special at Tea Source just for the evening) and Jim said, in his serious lawyerly tone, "Yes, we've been talking about that."
But nobody was talking about that. They were talking about the world, and Morris dancing, and why Brian should move to Minnesota.
I did have one moment where I was simply overwhelmed. There was a sudden confluence of timing, when the pasta was almost ready and it was time to slice the garlic bread and to take the baking pan of sausage to the food table, all at once. I got a little rushed, which caused me to spill a bit of the bubbling hot tomato sauce out of the sausage pan as I carried it, all over my floor and my socks. Before I had time to react Libbie asked me quick where the rags were and I got them before heading off to get the socks quick off my feet while Douglas, just as quickly, asked where the pasta serving bowl was and by the time I got my socks changed Denise had cut up the garlic bread and put it out and Douglas had put out the pasta and Libbie had cleaned up all the spilled sauce and everybody acted as though this were the most regular thing in the world to require of your guests, in a frantic adrenalin rush.
There are many small stories of the evening, which was a universe in microcosm, and (as I say so often) I really hope to do this more frequently, even without the excuse of an out-of-town guest whom everybody is fond of. I now have a refrigerator and freezer filled with tomato sauce, salad, dressing, cheese, pate, and Douglas's chocolate ice cream. This is good. But it's nothing compared to the reminiscence of what all that tasted like in context.
Thanks, all, for the help and advice. When winter comes I'll do soups and stews. That should be easy to coordinate.