The Happiest Hostess

For Karen DiBenedetto of Ohio, the perfect summer party begins with a plan. We venture behind the scenes of her latest get-together for tips, tricks and — even better — family recipes.
It’s hard to say exactly where the fun began.
Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
Pillows and a throw for when lake breezes blow from Paysage in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

You could argue Sicily, where Karen DiBenedetto’s family has been making crusty Italian bread and eating it warm with olive oil, salt and pepper for generations. Then again, maybe it was Avezzano, Italy, where her husband David’s relatives still slice fresh prosciutto for every dinner, make their own wine, and finish every day with pignoli or biscotti. Then again, you could certainly make a case for Ohio State University, the place where Karen and David met and merged their Sicilian and Italian heritages. Not to mention the fact that OSU has a bit of a reputation as a party school.

Wherever it started, it has landed in a backyard overlooking the water in Avon Lake, Ohio, where Karen and David have thrown dozens of parties since building their 4,500-square-foot-home in 2002.

On the day we visit, there are three generations of the family in the kitchen prepping for the party: Karen, her mother, Pearl Vienna, and Karen’s daughter, Danielle DiBenedetto Shellito.

On the menu for this afternoon’s get-together: lemon chicken Sicilian style, grilled salmon with salmoriglio sauce, fresh fruit skewers drizzled with raspberry dressing, lemony rice parsley salad and vanilla ice cream with blueberry topping.

Karen grew up in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, watching her mother cook. Every Sunday and Wednesday was pasta night. It goes without saying that the sauce was homemade, but so was the bread, sausage and even the spaghetti, which was hung from any available surface in the kitchen to dry.

The lemon chicken that Pearl is preparing today is her creation, but none of the ladies can remember how long she’s been making it. Inspired by a visit to Sicily a few years back, Karen came up with the salmon recipe. “The food there is extremely different from Italy,” she says. “They use a lot of sauces.”

Now, every Sunday is family day at Karen and David’s house, usually drawing all three kids and their spouses back home. Their youngest son, Michael, keeps his mother supplied with fresh produce. “He has a huge garden,” Karen says. “Then he brings me all my fresh tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and spices that I use when I cook.”

Karen loves to entertain for both family and friends. Her biggest tip is to prep absolutely everything you can the day before. For this party, the chicken and the rice were done the previous night. She leaves only the finishing touches for the next day. “The whole key is planning ahead,” she says. “If you’re rushed, forget it.”

Equally important, she says, is to have a theme. “I just think it makes it fun and festive,” she says. She’s had 1970s parties, bashes inspired by The Sopranos, island-themed events and many celebrations centered on big games, especially those involving Ohio State football. If she doesn’t have an obvious theme, she works with color, as she did when she bought potted purple, yellow and pink flowers for this most recent get-together.

But nobody has fun unless the hostess is having fun — and it’s not something you can fake.


Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
Smores around the bonfire.
“It’s easy for me,” says Karen. “I just love doing it.”


Having the lake as a backdrop doesn’t hurt either. Karen and David have been building homes on Lake Erie for years through their company, DiBenedetto Fine Homes. They found that all of the promises about lakefront living were true when they built their own home on the water. “It’s so relaxing,” says Karen. “The water is so calming.”

The DiBenedettos have a large terrace right off the great room where meals are shared, as well as a tiki hut down by the lake. It’s David’s job to man the bar (he makes margaritas and serves limoncello) and control the music (Frankie Valli, Frank Sinatra and the Jersey Boys soundtrack are favorites).

He gives all the credit, however, to his wife. “She’s off the chart. She’s one of a kind,” he says. “She does 36 times more than anyone could ever do for absolutely everything.”

The biggest party yet was thrown when the DiBenedettos’ daughter was married last year. Danielle, a designer with her own clothing line called Proper Tea, says she often heads to her parents’ home to work, finding that the water inspires her. “For me, it was fitting to be married here,” she says.

A deck that spans the length of the water and hovers above the beach was built for the event. In addition to a full Italian menu, there were gelato stations from Danielle’s favorite source — Anthony’s of Little Italy in Cleveland.

But the very best get-together Karen and David ever attended wasn’t at their house. It was at their daughter’s. After watching her mother and grandmother cook for years, Danielle made Sunday dinner herself for the first time. That was also the night she told her family she was expecting. Christian Giovanni is due this October. “That was the greatest dinner ever,” says Karen, with a huge smile on her face.

Karen and David have another reason to be happy. Their son, David, and his wife, Tiffany, are also expecting their first child this August — a boy to be named David DiBenedetto III.

That’ll make two grandchildren. And where there are babies, there are parties — showers, Christenings and birthdays.

"I can't wait," Karen says. "Our family will be complete."

Fresh Fruit Skewers Drizzled with Raspberry Dressing

Watermelon, shaped into balls

Pineapple, cubed

Strawberries, whole

1 bottle of raspberry vinaigrette dressing

Skewer fruit, starting with the strawberry on bottom, then pineapple and the watermelon on top. Place on large platter and drizzle raspberry vinaigrette dressing across skewers.

Lemony Rice Parsley Salad

2 cups arborio rice

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped

1 small sweet Italian frying pepper, cut into ¼-inch dice

½ cup oil-cured Italian pitted black olives, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons lemon zest

Salt and pepper to taste

Lemon wedges for serving

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and simmer over moderate heat until just tender (15-20 minutes). Drain thoroughly. In a large bowl, toss the rice with the olive oil and lemon juice. Stir in the parsley, frying pepper, olives and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Serve either warm or cold with lemon wedges.

Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
Pearl’s lemon chicken is ready to be served.

Lemon Chicken Sicilian Style

4 chicken breasts

Vegetable oil for frying

2 eggs

1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs

3 tablespoons milk

For lemon dressing:

4-5 lemons

1 tablespoon crushed garlic in olive oil

¼ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

4 basil leaves, chopped

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together eggs and milk in a shallow bowl and set aside. Pour Italian bread crumbs into a shallow bowl and set those aside. In a small bowl squeeze lemons (remove all seeds). Add crushed garlic, vegetable oil, Parmesan cheese, chopped basil and black pepper and set aside.

Rinse and dry chicken breasts. Cut each piece horizontally into two and then fillet the half of chicken that is thicker into two pieces. When finished, you should have 3 pieces per breast. Pound chicken between sheets of plastic wrap.

Heat vegetable oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Dip chicken breasts into egg mixture and then into bread crumbs. Fry chicken until golden brown.

Place chicken into a roasting pan. Pour lemon sauce over all layers of chicken. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Plate the chicken with lemon wedges and fresh parsley.

* This recipe can be made up to the point of baking and refrigerated the night before. Do not add the lemon sauce until you bake it. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking to allow it to rise to room temperature.

Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
Karen DiBenedetto’s salmon recipe.

Grilled Salmon with Salmoriglio Sauce

1 large whole salmon filet without skin

2 tablespoons olive oil



For salmoriglio sauce:

4 tablespoons thyme leaves

1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard


4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Prepare the sauce. In a mini food processor, combine the thyme leaves, lemon juice, mustard and salt. Pulse for 1 minute. Add the butter and process until completely smooth. With the machine on, add the olive oil in a thin, constant stream until fully incorporated. Season the sauce with salt and pour into a sauceboat.

Brush salmon on both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place on a grill that has been prepped with a nonstick spray or use a fish basket. Grill until fish flakes easily and is cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side.

Transfer salmon to a large platter. Let rest for 3 minutes. Drizzle salmoriglio sauce over salmon and garnish with lemon wedges and fresh thyme leaves.

Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake
Vanilla ice cream with blueberry sauce.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Blueberry Topping


Vanilla ice cream


1 pint of blueberries

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

¼ cup sugar

Mint leaves for garnish

In a medium saucepan, melt unsalted butter over medium heat. Add blueberries and sugar. Cook, stirring until blueberries release juices, about 2 minutes. Cool slightly and spoon warm sauce over ice cream. Garnish with fresh blueberries and a mint leaf.