Sunday Night “Spaghetti” at Nan’s

by Alex Hitz

American Ballet Theater Performance of "Swan Lake" - May 8, 1989

Whenever Nan and Tommy Kempner were in town, Sunday nights were super-special occasions. Unlike the more formal seated lunches and dinners for 12 to 18 during the week, these Sunday parties were blockbuster sit-all-over-the-apartment buffet suppers for 30 to 120 guests, several times a month. The phone would ring and there was Nan: “Do come for a spaghetti dinner,” her tone implying an evening as cozy and relaxed as something any old housewife might slap together for a crowd. Hmm.

For more than 50 years, Nan’s Sundays were legendary: bacon sticks passed on silver trays with pink Champagne swirling through the apartment before the dining room doors opened. Ta-da! Round buffet tables set with cheerful Porthault linens served as backdrop for the most scrumptious spaghetti carbonara—and hand-shaved (read: exotic) Parmigiano Reggiano with major-domo Bernardo there shaving it. Plus trays of cold meatloaf with mustard sauce; sides of smoked Scotch salmon; platters of France’s most decadent cheeses; and arugula with balsamic—before anyone’d heard of either. Silvina, Bernardo’s wife, was the Kempners’ chef and had incredible talent—something I call “the touch.” A natural cook, a dream. But the reason that absolutely every morsel ever served in that house was so memorable was because both Nan and Silvina collaborated on each menu, each dish, each recipe, together. Their union was gourmet virtuosity.

Who came? Only a cherry-picked who’s who of the international jet set, titans of Wall Street, a smattering of celebrated artists and designers, auction types, show folks, and anyone posh who happened to be in from the provinces. “Wear whatever you’re already in,” said Nan, and nobody missed it. Wryly, she called the guest list a “dog’s dinner.”

Bar none, Nan was the best hostess. A San Francisco native, she came to New York as a young bride in the mid-1950s, met everybody, and became an influential society figure, esteemed fund-raiser, renowned wit, beloved friend, style icon, indefatigable hostess, and talented party-goer. Michael Taylor did up the Kempners’ glamorous Park Avenue duplex in 1958 with a groundbreaking, elegant mix of proper-meets-relaxed-California. Designed for parties, it was a series of grand, inviting public rooms whose formality was tempered by elements like corduroy-covered banquettes made for lounging. Nan and Michael wanted comfort—and camaraderie—to such a point that Nan’s own mother suggested the pitch of those banquettes might have been better suited to a bordello.

It seems now like another world—no one there was checking Uber notices or Instagram feeds—and I was lucky enough to go often. That apartment had timeless intrigue, and still does; built for a silent film star, there’s even a faucet for Champagne in the bathtub. So Nan.

Of all my favorite things Nan and Silvina served, with gratitude to both husbands, Tommy and Bernardo—who made it all happen—these bacon sticks may be my very favorite things. They couldn’t be easier. Spaghetti Dinner or not, there was never any other hors d’oeuvre. Just like Nan was, they’re chic. And razor-thin.

Click here for the full “Nan’s Bacon Sticks” recipe.