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Need a hostess gift when invited to dinner? The Times' S. Irene Virbila has a few ideas

When you've been invited to dinner, it's polite to ask if you should bring something. Here are some ideas: cookies, unusual oils, vanilla beans, even a fun spoon.

January 19, 2012|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
  • Nice olives and oils can make good hostess gifts.
Nice olives and oils can make good hostess gifts. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

When I spent some months in Venice, Italy, years ago, my friend Paolo would show up at dinner parties with prosciutto. I'm not talking about a paper packet of sliced ham but a whole prosciutto di San Daniele, the famous ham from Friuli, cured with the foot on. The host would hand him a glass of Prosecco, he'd pull his well-traveled prosciutto out of the bag and proceed to carve off slices as his contribution to the cicchetti (antipasti) spread. Brilliant. And after, it would go home with him to be trotted out for the next dinner party.

It's only polite when you're invited to dinner to ask whether you can bring something. When I'm giving a dinner party, I'm often stumped to answer the question, though. Wine geeks can bring wine. But for anyone else, my knee-jerk response is to say no, we don't need a thing. I've slowly come to realize, though, that it's not at all the right response because it leaves the guest frantically trying to figure out something suitable to bring and, in the end, makes the whole thing more painful than it needs to be.

If it's a semi-potluck, I might ask someone to bring a dessert or a first-course salad, things that are easily transportable. Or if a guest lives near the farmers market and always goes, I might ask if he or she could pick up some ears of corn or a couple of bunches of asparagus. Sometimes I ask people to bring some music they love or have just discovered, so we can enjoy it during dinner.

My friend Dan always comes up with something interesting. He's been known to show up with a Bo Diddley or Muddy Waters album from his archives or an obscure food book that maybe two other people in the world other than himself know. The other night, he arrived with a glass bottle of Broguiere's milk from the Montebello dairy, printed with congratulations to Jerry Hollendorfer for being "inducted to the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame" on the back. Perfectly timed, since I'd just run out of milk for my morning coffee.

Another friend always brings homemade ice cream. She asks which flavor beforehand and then arrives toting a giant cooler with the ice cream carefully packed inside, with plenty extra so she can leave a little behind. I'm always thrilled to find it the next day. My neighbor Sonya is the cheese specialist. Tight with local cheesemongers, she'll always show up with several cheeses, at least two of which no one else at the table has ever tasted.

I was invited to a dinner just before Christmas and another guest, a passionate baker, arrived with an array of rustic breads he'd made from a sourdough starter he's kept going for years. Commandeering a cutting board, he set to work sawing through the thick, delicious crusts. We all stood around the kitchen island, drinking Beaujolais and devouring slices of his homemade bread slathered with sweet butter.

Here's a thought. What if I made a list of items that might be very welcome, if not that night, then another evening? And so I've come up with some suggestions I'll keep at the ready for the next time someone asks what to bring to dinner. Here goes:

Olives (preferably Castelvetrano or Lucques) and Marcona almonds. These will be brilliant with the apéritif in case the host/cook is running late and needs something to keep the guests occupied in the meantime. And if not, they'll keep for the next occasion.

Fra' Mani salumi. Former Chez Panisse and Oliveto chef Paul Bertolli's dry salami were among the first to rival Italy's best and ushered in a newfound emphasis on charcuterie (now that we had the good stuff). I especially like his salame gentile, made in the style that dates back to 18th century Parma.

A bottle of rosé or Champagne from a good local wine retailer. Perfect for any occasion (or any cuisine). When in doubt, go with a small grower recommended by a knowledgeable wine merchant. Your host most likely won't already have that bottle, so it will be a discovery for one and all.

A pound of coffee beans from one of L.A.'s many independent roasters. I can't keep up, so many have been opening recently. Espresso beans from Intelligentsia or LA Mill are always welcome, but why not be the first to introduce Handsome Coffee Roasters, Trystero Coffee or Tonx beans to the assembled diners?

Handmade chocolates (plenty to choose from, the more local the better). Bring a pretty package of the latest creations from Valerie Confections, Madame Chocolat, Jin Patisserie or John Kelly Chocolates.

A bottle of unusual oil (walnut, hazelnut, even pumpkin seed oil if you can find it). These specialty oils come in small bottles and thus are an indulgent treat for a cook. Guaranteed to revitalize any vinaigrette. Iridescent green-red pumpkin seed oil is best used to garnish a pumpkin soup with a few artful drops.

An aged sherry vinegar. A good vinegar is hard to find and always a welcome gift. Pick up a bottle at a gourmet shop or even a wine shop. Sherry vinegar works magic in salads or marinated vegetables.

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