Becky Luigart-Stayner; styling by Judy Feagin
Susan Gravely knows exactly how to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her family business. She lifts her glass and says, in a voice brimming with emotion, "To my sister and my dear, dear friends."
"And," dear, dear friend Charlotte Robbins impishly reminds her, "to your husband."
Everyone dissolves in laughter, especially Bill Ross, the momentarily overlooked husband. Susan and her sister, Frances Gravely, share a private smile. Everything they love about their lives has come together at this moment: friends and family, a beachfront house, Italy-inspired food, and a beautifully dressed table.
The dinnerware is from Vietri (vee-AY-tree), the home-products company that Susan, Frances, and their mother, Lee, co-founded almost by accident a quarter of a century ago. Vacationing on the Amalfi coast of Italy, they became enamored of the dinner plates at their hotel. As Susan tells it, their conversation progressed from "let's buy some for ourselves" to "let's buy some for our children" to "let's wholesale it!"
Ah, that exuberant Italian lifestyle. You're having a good time, you get carried away, and before you know it, you're importing millions of pieces of dinnerware, glassware, flatware, and other tabletop items every year. Frances says the company sells a way of life―the Italian love of sharing good times and good food with people you care about.
"We don't live formally," Susan says, "but we love to set a table that's a bit dressier." Even when the Gravely sisters visited the beach as children, their mother always set the table with candles. That's the life the sisters are celebrating this afternoon on Figure Eight Island near Wilmington, North Carolina. Outside the house Susan and Bill (who is secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources) co-own with two other couples, they sit down with the dinner guests: Charlotte and Todd Robbins of Memphis, Tennessee, and Sallie and Hank Cunningham of Greensboro, North Carolina.
After the toast, the meal unfolds leisurely, from the antipasto of marinated olives to the rosemary-skewered swordfish and creamy, citrus-tangy panna cotta with strawberries . As moonlight splashes across the waves, the secret to a happy life seems so simple, so easy, so obvious. As Frances puts it, "It's about taking time for friends over dinner."
Frances Gravely shares some secrets she's learned from her Italian friends about entertaining elegantly but comfortably:
• Decide on the menu when you see what's freshest that day at the grocer or in your garden.
• Be whimsical. Mix dinnerware patterns. Decorate with pretty things from elsewhere in the house (a favorite teapot can hold flowers), or even from the yard (potted herbs, for example).
• Keep the wine cellar amply stocked and leave bottles on the table for guests' convenience.
• Light candles. They always add a gracious touch.
• Let guests serve themselves, family style. A buffet becomes part of the fun, and conversations continue uninterrupted.
• Take your time. Linger over each course, and after dinner as well. Talk about families, fond memories, places you've traveled, future adventures―almost anything except work.
• Choose dinnerware that's safe in the dishwasher. Life is too short for hand-washing.