When hosting in small spaces, challenges abound. How does one cook a meal for 10-12 guests in a barely-there kitchen? Who among small-space dwellers has room to store all the holiday decor and boughs of holly? And where should the welcome refreshments go when you have ambitiously planned a snack-fueled mingling and a subsequent sit-down dinner?
None of those quandaries have stopped Oakland residents Joe and Celia Catalino, restaurant veterans and co-founders of the sustainable wine club and online bottle shop, What To Drink, from being regular (and consummate) hosts. Over time, they have learned to cleverly work around their 700-square-foot, tight-squeeze of a home. Here, the couple—also parents to 10-year-old daughter, Lucia—allows us a peek into their full-house holiday festivities, and share expert tips that include how to combine the snacks and drinks table for efficiency, where to hide the clutter so guests don’t see it, and their picks for low-maintenance pre-batched cocktails.
Read on for more.
Why do you choose to converge the snack table and bar in the dining room?
Celia Catalino: It really comes down to the fact that we do have a very small place, so keeping the bar with the food just makes for more efficient clean-up. Besides, our bar is actually a hefty vintage barrister cabinet that’s packed with bottles, so it stays put in the dining room. But I also think keeping the snack and drinks together creates less confusion. Our general party M.O. is to let our guests help themselves, which frees us up for mingling. Since we usually do a pre-holiday dinner spread, it’s easier to clear one space for the main meal.
How does this arrangement affect the mood of the party?
CC: What we like most about this setup is that it creates a casual vibe. Fancier parties where the hosts are constantly serving and attending to their guests feel a little stuffy to us. We’re more in the “Welcome, grab a drink, dip a chip, and let’s hang out!” camp.
Do you have a trick for hiding away things that don’t make it to your party set-up?
CC: The bedroom is always a great place to store things that might be in the way when you’re entertaining in a small place. Your guests aren’t going to be hanging out in there anyway—we hope.
Your holiday decor seems simultaneously all-seasons and festive.
CC: We don’t load up on holiday decor because we don’t have room to store things that we would only use once a year. So, in decorating for holidays, we use what we already have and make tweaks for a more festive look.
This evergreen-but-make-it-holiday approach to decor seems tailor-made for small spaces.
CC: I’m Mexican, and we celebrate Mexican holidays in our house so we already had the marigold garland left over from Dia de los Muertos. In the table garland, I inserted some colorful Mexican tin ornaments—the sacred heart, the calaveras (skulls and skeletons), and an armadillo. We originally gave these out as favors at our wedding in 2009, and have used the surplus ever since for home decor. Joe grew up on the East Coast, where the holiday aesthetic seems more traditional—lots of acorns and holly, from what I’ve seen.
Joe Catalino: It was the ’80s. But yes, maybe the holidays were more stereotyped back then, at least they were in my house. I recall a lot of dried brown maple leaves on the table.
CC: I also draped a single string of lights—a permanent fixture in my daughter’s room—over a colorful Otomi textile from Mexico City.
Assuming you have a small kitchen, how did you juggle all the food prep?
CC: Our kitchen is not small, it is tiny. The length of my body does not fit on our kitchen floor, and I am only 5’2”. Cooking in there can feel extra stressful when guests are over. We try to serve snacks that can be made the day before or the morning of, and can easily be plated right before everyone arrives. For main courses like braises, casseroles, and roasts, they can simply simmer on the stove or stay warm in the oven until everyone is ready to sit at the table to eat.
How did the re-setting of the dining room for the main meal go?
CC: In order to clear everything quickly for the meal, we limited our appetizer offerings and drink options. Less is more in this particular situation. Remember, an extensive buffet and open bar does not necessarily equate to a good time. About 10 minutes before serving the main meal, we consolidate the leftover snacks and move them to a side table in the living room, and then set the table. Entrées are placed in the center of the table, family-style.
Tell us about the wine you’ve chosen for this party.
JC: The wine is a sparkling albariño from Ryan Stirm and Andrew Nelson, two biodynamic producers out of Santa Cruz County. It’s tart and refreshing, and goes with everything. The label is a beautiful hand-drawn portrait by tattoo artist Cameron Forsley.
Why did you decide on pre-batched cocktails in Mason jars?
CC: Because the jars make it easier to mix and store the drinks—just pop on the lid—and guests can pour the drinks themselves. We learned that lesson years ago when we served a high-maintenance cocktail that needed to be made individually. Joe was basically the bartender the whole night.
JC: It was The Billionaire—a bourbon cocktail from a bar in New York called Employees Only. It involves mixing, shaking and the whole nine. It’s still one of my favorites, but it’s just not a hands-off party drink that will allow you to hang out with your guests.
CC: The Negroni is the easiest pre-batched cocktail ever, and the sweet red vermouth and orange garnish just happens to look very autumnal.
What are some of your tricks for entertaining in tighter quarters? Share them with us.