It’s Sunday night and Giuseppe Marrone is teaching perfect strangers how to make perfect gnocchi as they slurp on Spritz cocktails in his New York apartment.
The 29-year-old would-be restaurateur who once worked at The Ritz has thrown open his home to foodies hungry for the ultimate niche experience: the New York dinner party.
In a city with so many fabulous restaurants and where so few can afford large apartments, dining at home is rare enough for people to pay to be invited.
On a mission to entertain and introduce Americans to authentic Italian cooking, Marrone and Chiara Mortaroli, 28, laid on a spectacular three-course meal complete with wine and cocktails for just $60 a head.
And how did they arrange it?
Through CookApp (www.cookapp.com), a tech start-up that expanded from Argentina to New York three months ago, allowing chefs to turn their homes into a restaurant for the night.
Mortaroli, who works in a Chelsea art gallery, discovered CookApp on Facebook and felt it was the perfect way to combine her love of cooking with meeting new people.
This is the second dinner party she has hosted, and she has been to two others as a guest.
“We do big group dinners with our friends all the time, where everyone puts in money, and then people call up saying, ‘Can I bring my friend?’” Mortaroli said, clattering around the kitchen preparing lemon tarts.
“I love to meet different kinds of people, especially from different cultures and when Chiara told me about this, I said ‘Let’s do it!’” said Marrone.
Charming, chatty and larger than life, the two friends work the room, topping up the glasses of their eight guests as they encourage them to help make the gnocchi.
Without the Internet, along with a shared interest in Italian food and meeting new people, the eclectic crowd of diverse young professionals would never have met.
Squeezed round a table in the sitting room, each guest is given recipes for the gnocchi and lemon tarts, rolled into little scrolls and done up with ribbon.
Dinner began with seafood salad, bruschetta and salmon filo pastries, before gnocchi and ragu that Marrone took delight in saying had taken 18 hours to cook.
“Oh my God, I loved it. I thought it was super fun,” publishing company executive Lauren Ruotolo told AFP.
Living in Gramercy Park, she relished the chance to do something different in a different part of New York, as well as learn about Italian regional cuisine.
“Giuseppe really made you feel you were part of his life, which I thought was great,” she said.
Jeni Kreiger, a 34-year-old tour guide and masseuse, regularly dines in some of New York’s finest restaurants but loved the more intimate experience.
“Oh heck yes, I already made the gnocchi at home. It was so awesome,” she told AFP.
“I challenged (fellow guest) Roberth to a cartwheel competition on the terrace so you can’t do that in a restaurant!”
CookApp launched in New York in February, after making a real splash in Buenos Aires, and 57 events have been hosted in the Big Apple so far, co-founder Pedro Rivas told AFP.
The city of eight million is an attractive market with its rich cultural and culinary heritage, an obsession with all things new and love of nightlife.
In a city with a constant influx of new people, Rivas says some of the best CookApp customers are those who have recently relocated to the Big Apple.
“CookApp really does connect people who don’t know a lot of people in the city,” Rivas said.
“There’re obviously people older and younger, but the majority are between 25 and 45.”
“And there are slightly more women than men… we also see the same trend in Buenos Aires — perhaps women are more prone to this or closer to the foodie culture.”
Mortaroli says everyone she has met has been good fun.
Most join CookApp through Facebook. Prospective chefs also apply and have to get approval from CookApp before they host their first dinner party.
“We home in on three things,” says Rivas. “Cleanliness and safety, cooking ability and last and most important, how good a host they are.”
Afterwards, diners grade the experience and Rivas says 95 percent of reviews are four to five stars.
There are also those who come looking for love.
“There are a bunch of dating apps but here you’re in a social event. Sometimes it happens — I’ve seen it firsthand,” said Rivas.