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Life of the Party: Mary Giuliani's Deceptive Simplicity 

click to enlarge Mary Giuliani
  • Mary Giuliani

Mary Giuliani has always prized simplicity, with a twist. Though the New York and Woodstock-based caterer has Bradley Cooper and Matt Damon on her client list, she serves finger foods from her childhood, tacos and mozzarella and, most important for Giuliani, pigs in a blanket, made memorable from attending many bar and bat mitzvahs in her childhood. The result is a menu that, while familiar to anyone, is nonetheless unique to Mary Giuliani Catering & Events. It's this deceptive simplicity that is the guiding focus for her first book, The Cocktail Party (Ballantine Books, 2015).

Her life story follows a similarly off-kilter path. Giuliani never thought she would pursue a career in food. In fact, she wanted to be a writer. The Long Island native went to Georgetown and studied English with a theater minor, always looking for stories, composing narratives in her notes instead of paying attention in class. When in 2000 she started working at the catering company DM Cuisine, it was supposed to be a temporary gig, just one in a series of others that included stints checking coats, working as a talent agent, and helping to fulfill wishes at the Make a Wish Foundation.

Random as this may have seemed, there was a precedent in her family. Her mother was a "great cook," Giuliani remembers, and her grandmother pioneered the hospitality industry out on Montauk, Long Island, running hotels and hosting parties for everyone, she notes in her book, from fishermen to political candidates. Every summer Giuliani went out to the shore with her parents, where she would sneak into her grandmother's afterhours cocktail parties, attended by all manner of New Yorkers, invited specially for the occasion.

Giuliani found that catering married this history to all of her other interests, from theater and hospitality to the food she was discovering she loved to cook. In 2005 she and her husband started their own company, Mary Giuliani Catering & Events (company philosophy: "Work hard and be nice to people"), which has catered parties for organizations as diverse as Google, Bloomingdales, Condé Nast, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The company, which the wife-and-husband team started in their Manhattan living room, currently employs 150 full-time and freelance staffers. And since 2013 she has partnered with celebrity chef Mario Batali, who also wrote the foreword for The Cocktail Party, for a catering line featuring upscale versions of Giuliani's typical fare, like a mini grilled-cheese sandwich with truffle honey, as well as bite-size samples of the Italian-style food one might find in one of Batali's restaurants.

As much as catering helped Giuliani realize her interests in theater and hospitality, so it is for writing. The Cocktail Party, inspired both by her grandmother's shindigs of old and her own discovery of hosting, is arranged as a number of different parties, each for a specific holiday, ranging from baby showers to Cinco de Mayo to Thanksgiving. Each section is broken down into what food to serve, drinks to make, playful ways to arrange, and tips for recovering after a longer party. Choice piece of advice: "Clean up the same night. Cleaning up with a buzz is much better than with a hangover."

Giuliani uses both her own recipes, as well as ones from her catering company, prioritizing fancy finger foods like pigs in a blanket and mixed drinks, like Jell-O shots, that you're unlikely to find in a more formal setting. She also includes one of the surprise successes from her business: "snacktivities," or bars where guests can dress up their food with a mix of ingredients. Most important for Giuliani, each party is bookended by a story from her experiences that relates directly to the parties she has catered, such as a Thanksgiving party where waiters dressed like pilgrims, or a night spent serving Oprah martinis.

It was in 2005, soon after the company's founding, that Giuliani and her husband moved up to Woodstock. "We were running the business together, and we knew we needed a separation from the business," she explains. They currently live with their infant daughter in a two-story farmhouse in Bearsville, all unvarnished floors and vintage furniture, with a backyard—seen frequently throughout the book—that looks out on a mountain meadow where Giuliani watches wildlife frolic. The setting, she thinks, is perfect for slowing down and recharging. "It makes you able to handle the city," she says with a laugh, and because of this she tries to enforce a separation between the two, only doing upstate catering for particular "causes" like the Woodstock Film Festival and Woodstock Writers Festival. "I sort of want to keep it sacred." She and her husband also co-own the restaurant Shindig and a group of vacation cabins.

Giuliani, perhaps invoking her grandmother, always enjoyed hosting get-togethers and parties among friends, and the size of her Woodstock home allows her to do most of her "personal entertaining" up here. Upstate, then, served as both her muse and her workspace. She wrote most of The Cocktail Party in a small yellow house on her property, each successful shindig inspiration for a new menu item or party arrangement. The result is a book that encapsulates the simple-yet-elegant style of entertaining that makes Giuliani's parties seem so effortless.

And with simplicity in business, she hopes, might also come some simplicity in her life. With a singular tweak, of course. If possible, she would like to "cut the cord" and move full-time to Woodstock, or perhaps somewhere in Dutchess County, where she would open her ideal business: a flower shop by day, low-capacity bar by night. "An open/closed sign on a door?" she says. "That's the endgame."

Mary Giuliani will be celebrating the release of The Cocktail Party at bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck on November 7 from 3 to 6 pm.

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