Under the Tuscan Sun


Take the all-American barbecue and give it an Italian twist.

It’s barbecue season&emdash;time to move the party outdoors. Instead of the same old, same old (hamburgers again?), try something different. We asked two local experts&emdash;griller extraordinaire Nick Kress and interior designer Karen Calija&emdash;to design a casually elegant Tuscan-themed dinner party that you can pull off with a minimum of fuss. 

Salame Toscana con Peperone, Fagioli di Lima, Capperi e Olive*
(Salami With Peppers, Butter Beans, Capers and Olives)

Mediterranean Barbecued Pizza*

Tuscan Pork Loin*
Grilled Asparagus
Steamed Baby Red Potatoes

Trio di Sorbetti

* Recipe provided

The Food&emdash;
Nick Kress devised a breezy Italian menu that starts with easy hors d’oeuvres&emdash;an antipasto platter and barbecued pizza&emdash;followed by a garlicky pork loin roasted on the grill, served with grilled asparagus and steamed baby red potatoes. For a sweet finish, he calls for a no-cook dessert: a trio of Italian sorbets. Much of the meal can be prepared ahead of time, so you can enjoy the party along with your guests.

Roast the peppers and season the pork loin a day in advance, advises Kress. You can even grill the roast before your guests arrive and serve it at room temperature.

In his job as territory representative for Standards of Excellence (a retailer of indoor and outdoor kitchen appliances), Kress does a lot of outdoor cooking demonstrations. You can cook just about anything on a grill, he says.

Even pizza. People are amazed, says Kress, who uses wood chips to impart flavor. The pizza will taste like it was baked in an Italian wood-burning brick oven.

For dessert, scoop Italian sorbet (we chose lemon, mango and raspberry) into pretty glass dishes and garnish with mint sprigs and store-bought amaretti cookies. What could be easier?

The Drinks&emdash;
When guests arrive, greet them with a glass of Prosecco, Italy’s version of Champagne. (Bonus: Unlike its French cousin, Prosecco is a bargain; you can pick up a good one for less than $10 a bottle.) With dinner, serve a robust Italian red table wine such as Nero d’Avola. In keeping with the Italian theme, place a tiny bottle of Pellegrino sparkling water at each place setting.

The Backdrop&emdash;If your garden has a focal point&emdash;a fountain, urn or flowerbed&emdash;place your table nearby. For our party, interior designer Karen Calija put the table next to a stone fountain and, for added romance, hung an antique chandelier over the fountain. You can even suspend a chandelier from a tree, she notes.

The Table&emdash;Calija came up with a monochromatic design scheme that juxtaposes old and new, rustic and refined. 

First, she layered the table with two linen cloths in shades of off-white. White-white is too stark, she says. Then she set the table with Italian ceramic plates rimmed in pewter, simple glassware and antique silver flatware. Don’t bother to polish it, Calija advises. A little aged patina is charming. She folded embroidered napkins in half and placed one underneath each plate, with the embroidered portion hanging down from the table. If you have beautiful linen napkins, she reasons, why not show them off?

Calija suggests using Italian foodstuffs as design elements: Olives in a rustic pottery bowl, breadsticks standing tall in a wicker basket and cheeses on an old wood cutting board temper the table’s elegance. At each plate, put a bud vase holding a few sprigs of Italian parsley. It looks pretty, and guests can pinch off a leaf or two to season their meal, Calija explains. Also, set out attractive bottles of imported olive oil and balsamic vinegar: Guests can use them for dipping bread.

For a dash of vivid color, florist Wes Green of Twiggs Floral Design Gallery filled a square glass vase to overflowing with cinnamon-colored roses, wine-red orchids and other blooms. Keep the arrangement low, so your guests can see each other across the table.

The Place Card&emdash;Calija created clever place-card holders using fresh portobello mushrooms. Simply turn the mushroom over, cap side down, and slice a small slit in the stem to hold a name card. It’s inexpensive and fun, she says.


Tuscan Pork Loin

Serve this dish hot or at room temperature.

2       pounds boneless center-cut pork loin roast
3       large garlic cloves, minced
3       teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/2    teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2    teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1/2    teaspoon salt
1/2    teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2       tablespoons olive oil
Kitchen string

With a knife, make deep, lengthwise cuts in the pork roast. In a small bowl, combine garlic, rosemary, thyme, paprika, salt and pepper. Stuff mixture into slits in roast and spread remainder over meat’s surface. Tie roast with kitchen string to maintain shape and ensure even cooking. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat grill to 500 degrees. Coat meat with olive oil and place on grill. Cook, turning occasionally, until outside is brown, about 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 degrees and roast pork, using indirect heat, about 1 hour. Roast is ready when thermometer inserted into center registers 145 degrees.

Transfer pork to serving platter, cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest 15 minutes. Slice meat and serve with juices. Serves 6.

Salame Toscana con Peperone, Fagioli di Lima, Capperi e Olive

(Salami With Peppers, Butter Beans, Capers and Olives)

Let your guests help themselves to this colorful antipasto platter.

2       red bell peppers
1/4    cup olive oil
2       tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2    pound dry Italian salami, thinly sliced
1       9.87-ounce can Milos giant beans in tomato sauce, drained*
1       cup black kalamata olives
1       10.9-ounce jar marinated caper berries in wine vinegar*
1/4    pound marinated mozzarella balls**

Preheat grill to 500 degrees. Roast whole bell peppers on grill, turning frequently, until outer skin is blackened. Place blackened peppers in paper bag to cool. When cool, peel, seed and tear each pepper into eight pieces. In a bowl, mix olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add peppers and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight.

Arrange roasted peppers, salami, beans, olives, caper berries and mozzarella balls on a platter. Serve with crusty Italian bread. Serves 6.

*Available at Cost Plus World Market
**Available at Corti Brothers

Mediterranean Barbecued Pizza

To make this delicious appetizer, you’ll need a 7-inch perforated pizza pan (available at restaurant supply stores).

1       pound pizza dough
1       teaspoon olive oil
1/4    cup prepared pizza sauce
3/4    pound pizza cheese (a mixture of Jack, cheddar and mozzarella)
1/4    pound smoked ham, thinly sliced
1/4    pound button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2    red onion, thinly sliced
1/4    pound pitted kalamata olives, chopped
2       tablespoons feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat grill to 500 degrees. Shape pizza dough to fit perforated pizza pan. Rub olive oil on pan’s surface, place dough on pan and put pan on grill. Close lid and bake, using indirect heat, 5 minutes on one side, then flip and bake other side an additional 5 minutes. Remove from grill and allow to cool.

Spoon pizza sauce on cooled crust, then top with pizza cheese mixture, followed by remaining pizza toppings. Place pan back on grill and bake 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and slice into six pieces. Serves 6.

Nick Kress’ Barbecue Tips

• To seal in juices, sear the pork over high heat before roasting.
• Use indirect heat to roast the pork and bake the pizza. If you’re cooking with gas, turn on the outer burners and place the food in the grill’s center. If cooking with charcoal, spread the hot coals to the grill’s perimeter. 
• To add flavor to grilled foods, soak oak, cherry or apple wood chips in water overnight, then throw them in your gas grill’s smoke box or directly on the charcoal. (If your gas grill doesn’t have a smoke box, make your own: Place the chips in a tin can or an aluminum pie tin.)