Every time we see a post on Melissa Norton’s Instagram, @cucinamelissa_, we are inspired and hungry but mostly jealous. The Italian dishes Melissa crafts range from rustic handmade pasta (using the most vibrant orange egg yolks we’ve ever seen) to succulent olive oil cakes beautifully topped with fresh florals. We knew we had to see—and taste—her work for ourselves. Melissa created a beautiful Lulu and Georgia tablescape for the holidays and served up a cheeseboard, Cornish hens with mushroom farro, a tarte Tatin, and her Cucina Melissa Classico Cocktail. Melissa’s simple yet elegant approach to menu planning and hosting has influenced us to elevate our gatherings this season. Read on for more about Melissa’s career as a chef and to check out her festive dinner party recipes.
You left your former career to become a chef and are now a creator of boutique culinary experiences here in Los Angeles. Was there a specific moment you knew you wanted to head to Italy?
I’ve been fascinated with food and hosting since I was a little girl. My mom and both of my Grandmothers had a special talent for hosting. Most Saturdays, my mom would invite several friends over to our home for a dinner party. She’d ask me to help set the table and would involve me in the cooking and prepping process. I loved tagging along with her to go to the grocery store to set the menu. Since then, I’ve developed a love for big beautiful parties and wonderful food. I remember thinking when I was little “Wow, if I could marry the two for a career, that would be a dream”. I thought, “what culture is the best at hosting, eating, drinking, and living life to the fullest?” – Italy. The choice of where to go to culinary school was easy.
Tell us about your formal training in Calabria, Italy. How did being immersed in old-school, artisan-level techniques inform how you now see the world and your work?
Although Calabria is the poorest region in Italy, it is also one of the warmest and most authentic. It’s a hidden jewel, you don’t see huge hotels or tourists walking the streets. Its realness drew me in and made my curiosity grow about what real Italian culture is like, despite what we see in the movies. The passion for living and eating well in the South is rich, and that zest and hunger drew me in like a magnet. I learned the importance of slowing down, taking good ingredients and doing very little to them. Something as simple as beautiful tomatoes cooked down with a little olive oil and basil tossed with perfectly al dente pasta and sprinkled with local parmigiano or pecorino will always be enough to fill a dinner table with joy. I learned to surround myself with people who build me up and make me smile on the hardest days. I also learned to never take the easy way out when cooking, the best food comes from doing the prep and not cutting corners.
As an expert in creating memorable culinary experiences for friends and family, what is your favorite tip for entertaining?
I like to set myself up for success before a dinner party. Music is a huge part of entertaining; it sets the tone for the food and the environment. I like to have a few playlists prepped before an event and switch between them depending on the course served and the energy of the guests. No stress or bad vibes are welcome – having a dinner party is a luxury and a wonderful experience; as a host, having a warm smile and a gracious attitude is one of the most important things. I’ll always have some type of appetizer and specialty cocktail ready when guests first arrive. People always arrive hungry and thirsty and having something prepped and ready sets the tone. If I’m in a pinch I’ll keep it simple and pick up a baguette, castelvetrano olives, some fruit and a few different cheeses to have on hand. I also find that involving guests keeps entertaining light and fun. Asking someone to help make an Aperol Spritz or cut a baguette keeps it interactive and playful.
Walk us through the creative process of selecting this menu and tablescape. What was the inspiration for this dinner party?
I was really inspired by the theme of “old Hollywood/European” cocktail hour you see in old black and white movies. I was watching “Rear Window” and loved how they used to get dressed up and have a long, drawn out cocktail hours before dinnertime. I wanted to bring the old school charm to this shoot and focus on pieces from L+G that highlighted a vintage European look.
What are some of your favorite go-to pairings on your cheese boards? Similarly, do you have any recommendations for wine and cheese pairings?
I’m a champagne and Prosecco fanatic and I’ll use any excuse I can use to serve bubbles as an opener to any dinner party. The acidity in sparkling wine helps cut the fat in heavier cheeses. I like pairing bubbles with olives, potato chips, caviar, cured meats (especially prosciutto), brie, and Parmigiano Reggiano. If I have a lot of red wine lovers at a dinner party, I’ll stick to a more tannic red wine and harder cheese. Chianti with pecorino or Grana Padano.
We loved how you were able to add elements of traditional festive decor—like red, green, plaid, and a bit of shine—while still making the look feel fresh and unique. What was your inspiration?
I was drawn to marrying the classic Southern California holiday with an old school vintage dinner party look. Drawing in moodier colors like burgundy, olive green, and dark wood allowed me to freshen up the tablescape with lighter plates, shiny silverware, and natural/bountiful California elements like pears and pomegranates.
What drew you to these Lulu and Georgia pieces? How did they feed into your vision for this tablescape?
I wanted to mix wood vintage-looking pieces with some modern serving pieces to give the tablescape a unique look. I knew olive green would go beautifully with the natural elements of pomegranate and pears and the large dramatic olive garland would create a festive “California” look on the outdoor table. I love keeping holiday tables moodier, staying in the burgundy, olive green, and dark wood tones. I almost always keep plates in neutrals or white so that the food shines on the table. The L+G decanters are one of my favorite pieces from the shoot. They add a level of sophistication to a bar cart or dinner table.
How do your surroundings influence the recipes you curate?
I love the idea of “Wabi Sabi” entertaining. Keeping things in your home that only spark inspiration and beauty. I think decorating and making your surroundings look polished yet comfortable is so often rushed these days."The beauty of a home is collecting those memorable pieces that you cherish forever."
My copper pots from Sardinia are some of my most cherished items in my home. Every time I look at them I’m reminded of my trip to Sardinia and the food we cooked in the pots. Collecting pieces over the years is what makes a home feel elegant and timeless. It also opens up a story to guests when they ask “where did you get that” or “that piece is so beautiful!”. It invites people into a conversation and opens up an opportunity for connection. When you’re surrounded by a space that feels organized, clean and beautiful, it’s like having an empty canvas to create.
'Tis the season! Any holiday traditions you're looking forward to the most this year?
My late grandmother started the tradition of having a formal Christmas Eve dinner. Since I was a little girl, she’d ask everyone to dress up in their best. She’d set a beautiful festive table and make a roast, rice pilaf, roasted vegetables, and always plum duff with whipped cream to finish the meal. I’m excited to carry on her tradition this year. I think I’ll contribute my chocolate olive oil cake with espresso sauce and make a new tradition.
What's next for you and Cucina Melissa?
A home in Italy is on the horizon. I’d love to host cooking workshops and pasta classes abroad. There are a lot of projects in the works that I’m excited about, but this one is at the top of my list.
4 cornish game hens
5 tbs ghee or clarified butter, melted
¼ tsp black pepper
½ tsp rosemary, finely chopped
½ tsp oregano, finely chopped
½ tsp thyme, finely chopped
Generous pinches of salt - see note in instructions
1 head of frisse lettuce (if you can’t find, look for any bitter green lettuce)
1 tbs lemon juice
1 tbs olive oil
For Red Wine Pomegranate Glaze:
½ cup meaty mushrooms, such as oyster, button, or crimini, chopped
2 tbs pomegranate molasses
300 ml red wine
500 ml beef stock
3 tbs cold butter
Pinch of salt and pepper
Pomegranate seeds to top
For Mushroom Farro:
1 pound farro
4 tbs olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
½ tsp thyme
2 carton of assorted gourmet mushrooms
¼ cup white wine
Salt and pepper
Parmigiano to top
For the Game Hens:
Rinse and pat dry all cornish game hens, make sure they are very dry
Generously salt the poultry all over with salt, making sure there’s an even coat on both the front and the back
Take two sheet trays with a wire rack and place the birds on the rack.
Set them in the fridge, uncovered, overnight (this step isn’t mandatory if you are on a time crunch, however, you will get the most amazing crispy skin if you do this step!)
The next day, preheat your oven to 400 F and take the birds out to get room temperature
Mix all of your herbs, pepper, and a pinch of salt with the ghee in a bowl.
Brush all of the birds with the ghee herb mixture, making sure they are evenly coated all over
Roast in the oven until the internal temperature reads 165
Take out and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm
For Red Wine Pomegranate Glaze:
Add 1 tbs of neutral oil to a large pot or saucepan.
Cook the shallot until softened, about 4 minutes
Add the mushrooms and cook over medium heat for 5-10 more minutes
Add the pomegranate molasses to deglaze the pan
Add the red wine and let it reduce for 10-15 minutes
Add the beef stock and continue to cook until the liquid is reduced by half
Strain the sauce in a sieve and return the sauce to a clean saucepan over medium low heat
Whisk in butter until creamy and emulsified
Set aside and keep warm
For Mushroom Farro:
Cook the farro according to package instructions
While the farro is cooking, cook the garlic and shallot over medium heat with the olive oil in a pot until softened
Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook for 10-15 minutes until they have a beautiful golden color
Taste for salt and pepper. Add the wine and let it cook until it is reduced by half or until you can’t smell alcohol in the pot.
Once the farro is finished cooking, rinse and add to the pot with the mushrooms and wine.
Taste for salt and pepper, finish with a knob of butter, and set aside until you’re ready to use.
To re-heat - simply add the mixture to a pot and heat until warm
Toss the frisee with the lemon juice, olive oil and salt in a bowl and set aside
Carve the cornish game hens. Set aside
On a large family style serving platter, make a beautiful mountain of the hot mushroom farro and grate parmigiano over the top generously
Add the cornish game hens over the top and fill the sides in with the frisse salad
Pour the hot pomegranate sauce over the top, reserving half of the sauce for a sauceboat for the table
Finish with a touch of flake salt and pepper