Charming Dinner Hosts

Rico Gagliano (L) and Brendan Francis Newnam (R) hosts of The Dinner Party Download. Photo/ Kevin Scanlon

Rico Gagliano may not be as renowned for manners as Emily Post, but he has one thing in common with her—he’s written a book showing people how to be charming, funny and good party hosts. Though Post’s book is a bit more formal, Gagliano’s fits in more with what a professional comedian and entertainer would say about such affairs.

Gagliano, a 47-year-old Mt. Lebanon native, and his co-author Brendan Francis Newnam recently published Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party, in which they argue against dining out in the morning and for dining in during the evening. The book is a charming take on all that ails social occasions these days and offers humorous solutions on how to address those problems.

“It is basically two things in one,” Gagliano says. “First it begins with a brief anti-brunch rant. It describes how brunches embody the evils of the world. And then there is an antidote to terrible brunches by throwing a great dinner party.

“We’ve got all sorts of instructions on how to do it. We’ve got recipes for cocktails and other things. We sort of provide a lot of tips to avoid common pitfalls. Underlying all of this—though we have fun—is that we need to have more civility in the world. We need to have more meaningful conversations.”

Gagliano and  Newnam are known as the hosts of The Dinner Party Download, a nationally popular arts and culture radio show that recently finished its run after launching as a podcast in 2008. The show discussed all the things people would talk about at dinner parties. The program took off, and it featured interviews with a number of famous people, including director Spike Lee and comedian Steve Martin.

“People went with that idea,” Gagliano said. “And they had anxiety about how to throw a good dinner party. They wanted to know how to be witty and charming.”

Part of the book’s appeal is that it lays out all the major drawbacks of going out—the overpriced dishes and drinks, the buttoned-up atmosphere of brunch spots and the inflexibility and monotony of conversation at such places. On the contrary, dinner parties can be places of irreverence, off-color remarks, entertaining anecdotes and an opportunity to flirt with people you shouldn’t, as Gagliano writes. It’s a compelling argument for staying in.

“My favorite part is the observational humor throughout,” he says. “People are always asking us about dinner parties. Since they identify us as experts, we watch what happens at them. My favorite section is who gets the last piece of food on a dinner plate.

“That seems to cause no end of consternation among people. And we give advice and a mathematical formula. You plug in all these things and come up with a value for each person.The person with the highest numerical value gets the piece.”

Gagliano and Newnam currently are working on a podcast that will be a companion to their book. They will address any problems that people would encounter at a dinner party, from food-related issues to etiquette concerns. They plan on bringing in panels of guests that will include big-name celebrities who will offer analysis on how to best throw a proper party.

Gagliano recently spoke in Pittsburgh at, ironically, a boozy brunch book fair hosted by Threadbare Mead & Cider. He visits his hometown frequently, and has good memories of Mt. Lebanon, particularly of trick or treating on Halloween and of the Denis Theatre, which he hopes can be done with its renovation soon. Even though he’s based in lovely Los Angeles, he and his friends are captivated by western Pennsylvania when they come here.

“I always love going back there and visiting the place,” he says. “I’m always surprised and delighted by how green it is. And I’m especially delighted by the plethora of pizza places there. When I bring friends there, they always mention how many pizza places there are in this town.”