“It’s Not About Impressing People”—Cassandra LaValle On How to Throw a Dinner Party Like an Italian

Perfectly imperfect.

By Camille Styles
italian dinner party, antipasto, cassandra lavalle, cheese plate, overhead

One of the most delightful parts of my editorial career has been getting to know some of the most incredibly creative women. And over the last decade, I’ve been inspired by so many of their evolutions—launching companies, starting families, making cross-country moves, and otherwise reinventing themselves into versions that feel even more aligned with their true essence. Nowhere is this more true than with my dear friend Cassandra LaValle. We first met in 2009 when we’d both recently launched our blogs, and in the years since, Cassandra has expanded her styling business, designed homes and restaurants, opened a shop, and most recently, done a full rebrand, changing her company’s name from coco+kelley to (simply and quite perfectly) Cassandra LaValle.

I’m forever inspired by Cassandra—from the way she sets a table to how effortlessly she decorates a room, she always nails it. Her family’s Southern Italian heritage is evident in her joyful approach to cooking and hosting with gusto—abundant seasonal ingredients and a love for the process are ever-present.

On a recent trip to Seattle, I got to spend an afternoon with Cassandra in her studio. We hadn’t seen each other in awhile, but as we set the table and caught up over spritzes, it was a reminder that, with true friends, you can always pick right up where you left off. Read on for my interview with Cassandra LaValle, her secrets to a great party, and the only pistachio pesto recipe you’ll ever need.

friends at dinner party, cassandra lavalle hosting tips

On cooking like an Italian (in Seattle)

How did you learn to cook?

Even though we always cooked fresh meals at home, my strongest memories come from visiting the Italian side of my family in Toronto, and my grandmother and aunts showing me how to roll out gnocchi. It’s a great task for little fingers! My heritage and the value we put on gathering around meals, plus the fact that my dad worked in the restaurant industry, made food and entertaining a natural part of my upbringing. 

dinner party table, cassandra lavalle studio

What’s your approach to food? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a bit of a lazy cook, so I like more informal, easy to throw together meals. But, I think this also reflects my Southern Italian roots, where food isn’t fussy or over-prepared.

It’s all about good ingredients and simple flavors, with a lot of love and ritual thrown into the preparation. A big part of what I love about cooking is the ritual—pouring a glass of wine, turning on some music, and enjoying the process. 

Another part of that ritual includes gardening. Growing up, my mom would always have lettuce and tomatoes growing, and I’ve continued that tradition with my own family, adding new veggies to our raised beds every year and experimenting with growing everything from berries to corn. We even have some old plum and pear trees that came with the house! So we’re eating more seasonally and learning how to use the abundance of produce available to us, which has been fun. 

italian dinner party, antipasto, cassandra lavalle, cheese plate

What’s your must-have cooking tool and why? 

My husband makes fun of me because I use these tongs to cook almost everything, so maybe that’s my essential? I like the control they give me without scratching up my pans.

What are your favorite cookbooks?

  • Where Cooking Begins, by Carla Lalli Music. I love the way this cookbook is broken down into sections on cooking strategy, techniques, and then the actual recipes. This is a wonderful cookbook for those who have mastered basic cooking and are ready to dive into a new level without it feeling overwhelming. 
  • Piatti, Stacy Adimando. I met Stacy on a foodie trip that we were both invited on, and our Italian heritage connected us immediately! Her cookbook is one of my favorites because it’s all about small plates and platters, not just pasta pasta pasta, so it’s a lovely way to explore new Italian flavors and dishes. 
  • A Boat, A Whale, and a Walrus, and Getaway, both by Renee Erickson. Renee is a local chef and restaurateur here in Seattle, who I admire deeply. Her cooking is French and Italian influenced, but also very much bound to the Pacific Northwest, so naturally I love every recipe, and the stories behind them too! 
cocchi spritz cocktail bar setup, cassandra lavalle hosting tips

Tell us a few things we’ll always find in your refrigerator? 

A decent cheese selection. Fresh salad ingredients (lettuce, avocado, and radish are my favorites). Blueberries. Cut carrots and celery for snacking. Fresh pasta. Oat milk and eggs.  Probably a cut of meat or two, although we’re trying to get more vegetarian based in our meals! Mostly just the basics. I like to shop in the beginning of the week with a meal plan in mind so we don’t overstock and things don’t go bad.

Your go-to weeknight meal to eat at home?

It changes seasonally, but I love seafood (prawns or a whitefish) paired with polenta, and roasted tomatoes or grilled veg. Or, of course, pasta, pasta, and more pasta

cassandra lavalle hosting tips

On doing what she loves

How did your shop, Casa di LaValle, come to be?

In many ways, opening the shop was a natural next step for me—so much of my background has led up to this! In my twenties, I helped run a boutique home store in Los Angeles, and my favorite part was merchandising. I also spent a little over a year as a home merchandiser for Anthropologie. I was the Market Editor at Rue Magazine in its early days, and have been pulling together product selections for my own blog and interior clients for over a decade!

But it was finally being grounded during the pandemic that made me take the leap. Not traveling and also having a studio that had sat empty for nearly a year, I was inspired to pull together a holiday shop in December 2020. Our early shoppers were so encouraging, I decided to keep the pop-up shops going! We did them every other month last year, and have moved into monthly shopping this year, with a full time shop online. Most of the product I source is vintage or handmade, supporting small artists, makers, and artisans, which creates a really special and ever-changing curation of goods. 

friends at dinner party_unhealthy snacks

Tell us about your gorgeous studio.

I’ve always loved being in Pioneer Square, which is the most historic part of Seattle. The buildings down here have so much more character than most spaces in the city. I found this spot about five years ago, and the second I saw the painted white brick, soaring ceilings and natural light, I knew it was perfect! 

The tenants before us were an architecture firm and they painted all the walls white and the floor and ceiling black, and we thought it was perfect just the way it was. The light is definitely the best part of the space, along with the incredibly high doors and ceilings. I love that we’re close to the waterfront – I can stroll down there on a nice day and take in the view. And all the small businesses in the neighborhood are so supportive of each other. It’s such a great community to be a part of. 

salad, dinner party table, raddichio, cassandra lavalle

Walk us through a typical day for you.

As most creatives will probably tell you—I don’t really have a “typical” day. I’m not one for a lot of structure, although I do love my rituals. I’m usually up by 7am with a cup of coffee in my hand immediately. From there, some days it’s meditation and stretching, and some days it’s diving right into work. If I wake up with a big to-do list for the day, I like to check a few things off the list right away—it helps relieve the stress of the day. Either way, I tend to take a few hours in the morning to get work done on my laptop at home before taking the dog for a walk, and then heading into the studio or out to meetings. 

Lately, I’ve been trying to divide my week up into client days and shop days. I’ve learned that I can focus better when my brain isn’t switching in between the two, although sometimes it can’t be helped! In between, I’m also sourcing for both clients and the shop, as well as creating content. I like to try and reserve one day a week for a local antiquing trip, usually Fridays. I still can’t believe that this kind of shopping is a part of my job now!

italian dinner party, antipasto, cassandra lavalle, cheese plate, overhead

How Cassandra LaValle throws a great party

What does a great gathering look like for you?

I’m all about the casual hang with elevated moments. The most important thing to me is for my guests to feel comfortable. That means creating an environment where friends can show up and know that they’ll be taken care of.

I use any and all gatherings as an excuse to use my fun or fancy dishes. There are always fresh flowers or candles, and obviously, great food. Usually too much food, to be honest! I like to make dishes ahead of time that can sit out so people can nibble as they like. I enjoy the informality of this way of eating, but I also find that people will linger longer when there’s not a structured meal. 

I love a summer gathering that starts early and eases into that golden hour light, and when the sun sets, we bust out the blankets and build a fire outside so we can hang out late into the night.

italian dinner party, ceramic vases and olive branch centerpiece, dishes, napkins, cassandra lavalle dinner party

What are 3 products you love for the table, and why?

My top essential for the table is good linens—tablecloths, napkins, even dish towels. I love the texture they bring to a table, and they’re so classic and easy to take care of. These are my favorite linens in the shop right now. 

I’m also obsessed with big vintage wood salad bowls. I can’t get enough of them, I’m always collecting different sizes, so I have every size I need for entertaining. 

Lastly, simple and versatile glassware. Don’t get me wrong—I love good stemware (and definitely own a lovely set) but I remember watching my Italian family drink their table wine from simple juice glasses, and I’m all for it. So I like to set out a selection of small mismatched glassware on a casual table that you can use for any beverage.

cocchi spritz cocktail bar setup, cassandra lavalle hosting tips

Get the recipe for Cassandra’s Cocchi Spritz cocktail.

What scares you about entertaining?

Nothing! Maybe it’s my age or the casual nature of the gatherings I typically throw, but I love entertaining. As long as I’m stocked up on good wine and plenty of food, there’s not much that can go wrong!

I try to remember that it’s not about perfection, or impressing people, it’s just taking care of your friends, and (if you have good friends) them taking care of you too.

I highly suggest always inviting those unique souls who stay until the very end of a dinner party to help you wash the dishes.  

Your signature dishes for gatherings?

Charcuterie, always. You can’t mess it up! 

What’s one tip for someone who wants to host a gathering on a budget?

Skip the centerpiece and light some candles. And if you’re making dinner, choose a pasta or grains dish to serve family style—it’s cheaper, easier, and just as special! Also, my girlfriends and I still do potluck style when we gather at each other’s homes. There is zero shame in that game—our lives are all busy, and it’s always appreciated!

friends at italian appetizer dinner party_winter well being

Favorite conversation starter?

What’s the last show you binge-watched? (We’re all guilty, and it’s a nice light topic to enter into conversation with someone while avoiding the typical “What do you do?” )

The perfect dinner party playlist includes: 

Old jazz or blues. 

tomato and burrata galette, cassandra lavalle hosting tips

Get the recipe for Cassandra’s Heirloom Tomato and Burrata Galette.

Go-to centerpiece solution: 

Usually, a last-minute bouquet from flowers foraged in our garden or my neighbors, in a casual pitcher. Or a vintage candelabra in the off season! 

italian dinner party_foods to avoid before bed

What is your no-stress party rule to live by? 

Give yourself more time than you think you need to prep. Also, always overbuy cheese, bread and wine, and you’ll be fine. 

Dream dinner guests:

Just my nearest and dearest. They’re the ones I want to spend time with! 

friends at italian appetizer dinner party, cassandra lavalle hosting tips

Fill in the blank:

“A perfect meal should ”  be a journey.

“It’s not a dinner party without ”  beautiful wine and good conversation that lasts late into the evening. 

“Every cook should know how to ”  improvise! Just in case…