If you plan to host more than a couple of dinner parties a year, it's an efficient and economical idea to stock your party pantry with supplies.
staples . Head for your local super discount bulk supply store and buy in quantity. For year-round party giving, stock napkins (cocktail and dinner), dinner candles, mineral waters, mixers, garbage bags, etc. Spontaneous party lovers should stock "green" (extra-virgin) olive oil and dried pasta to mix with garlic, spices, and whatever happens to be in the refrigerator for a pasta di monento. If you have your own spontaneous meal, build a cache of its ingredients. Stock stock. A few cans of chicken, vegetable or fish stock can help you make soups and sauces on a whim. For the BBQ season, go deep on paper plates, charcoal, citronella anti-bug candles, tiki-style candles, etc.
a note on spices . There are two types of products sold in grocery stores that are marked up so much that I shake my head every time I pass them in the aisle: spices and breakfast cereal. I'll leave the discussion of the latter for the potential sequel, The Cereal Gourmet.
In most grocery stores the cost of a conventional jar of spices (i.e., dried oregano or black peppercorns) runs about three dollars. Down the street at your local natural foods, bulk foods or ethnic grocery store, these same spices are available by the ounce. What you don't get is the jar and the brand name; what you do get is a savings of up to 500 percent.
inexpensive party luxuries
thick paper napkins or folded cloth napkins
coffee made from freshly roasted coffee beans, freshly brewed and served with real cream
an endless supply of bottled sparkling mineral water
crusty fresh bread or focaccia
a small box of fancy chocolates or chocolate truffles
fancy funky cocktail swizzle sticks or umbrellas
a recently released CD or tape
Good food transcends the plate it is served on.
-- If it's not a Zen saying, it should be.
Despite what every kitchenware catalogue would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to serve on mismatched plates and cutlery. Anyone can buy a matching set of silverware and dishes for twelve, but it takes style and panache to compile a table of "found" place settings. This is not to say that a full-on place setting isn't acceptable and attractive. The point is, as long as each guest has a dinner plate, a glass and cutlery, everything else is superfluous.
In order to stretch what you have to fit what you need, borrow matching units of silverware and plates from friends (they will feel they are getting off easy), or buy stainless steel cutlery, glasses etc. for a song at a restaurant supply store. If your patchwork table feels too disjointed, distract attention from components with an eye-catching centerpiece of fresh flowers.
If the mix-and-match approach leaves you feeling inadequate, wait for Christmas and ask Santa for the matching set of whatever you feel is impeding your climb to the next social strata.
"paper or plastic" . We should all draw our own line between convenience and snobbery. (I'll gladly eat from a sturdy paper plate, drink from a plastic cup, and wipe my mouth with a paper napkin, but my snob-o-meter hits the red zone at plastic cutlery.) Just remember, caviar on a plastic fork is better then no caviar at all, and champagne from a slipper can taste divine.
rentals . If symmetry is the way things have to be, and Santa hasn't granted your wishes, rent. For parties of 12, the cost of delivery is disproportionate to the cost of the actual rental. If you pick up and return the goods yourself, the cost of renting silverware, plates, wine glasses and coffee cups/saucers is minimal.
foreign accents . Despite my constant lobbying to keep everything simple, it's always nice to add a personal flare to your table. Flea markets and garage sales are ideal places to score individual flower holders, napkin holders or tiny spice dishes. Indian restaurants use these dishes for cumin seeds, caraway seeds, etc. You can also use them for kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, fresh herbs (stems off), etc. If you happen to cross any of these items, buy them for a rainy party day.