Is there a gene for party-giving? Judging from Alexandra Angle's family tree, the answer would have to be yes. Four generations ago, Alexandra's great-great-great-aunt Isabella Stewart Gardner, founder of Boston's famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, became a society legend by throwing elaborate, whispered-about blowouts attended by numerous prominent artists, musicians and painters. Decades later, Gardner's grandniece and Alexandra's maternal grandmother, Olga Pertzoff, exhibited the same DNA. "She was a big entertainer—wild," Alexandra says, admiringly. "For instance, she was having a stone wall built and to keep her masons motivated, she hired musicians to play for them."
Alexandra has never hired a band to serenade a construction crew, but she's carrying on the family tradition with Aqua Vitae, the Los Angeles— based company she runs with her husband, Eliot Angle. The Angles' new entertaining guide, Cocktail Parties with a Twist, describes all manner of extravagant soirees, including one for which they transformed a mansion into a fun house. "That party was truly insane," Alexandra says. "I hired weight lifters to carry around silver trays with tiny flutes of Champagne on them."
The Angles came up with the concept for Aqua Vitae during their move from New York to Los Angeles in 1999, as they drove a U-Haul cross-country. Their first idea for a business venture—a high-end taxi service for inebriated revelers—didn't quite stick, but assuming responsibility for other people's parties seemed a perfect fit. "When we were living in New York, we gave zillions of parties, and people started asking us for help," says Alexandra, who met her husband at—where else?—a party. (It was Halloween; he was the dippy sailor from Gilligan's Island, and she was a vamp.)
Before they started Aqua Vitae, the biggest event the Angles had organized was their wedding on Labor Day back in 1997. The event took place over three days on the family-owned island in Maine where Alexandra had spent every summer during her childhood clamming, picking berries and sailing. Purchased in 1804 by Alexandra's great-great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Peabody, the island is still a vacation spot for members of Alexandra's extended family. The island, which has a working dairy farm, is also the source of some of Alexandra's most powerful taste memories: "Fresh lobster...fresh-picked raspberries...fresh cream and milk..." Two of Aqua Vitae's most popular island-inspired dishes—lobster capellini with leek-tarragon cream sauce, and raspberry-baked custard—are tributes to those Maine summers.
Memories from Alexandra's childhood in Vermont frequently make their way onto Aqua Vitae's menus too. At her parents' small farm in Pomfret, Alexandra, whose father was a sculptor, learned how to raise cows and pigs, grow vegetables and cook. The family's housekeeper, Mildred White, taught Alexandra how to make molasses-flavored Anadama bread. Alexandra was only six years old when her mother led her to a pot of barbecue sauce simmering on the stove and put her in charge of the finishing touches. With a little girl's bravado, Alexandra pitched in eight different spices, then used the surprisingly delicious sauce to baste the spareribs that were roasting in the oven—an early sign of her knack for finger food.
Ribs are now a mainstay at Aqua Vitae parties, where they form a welcome buffer for the Angles' notoriously strong cocktails, like their gingery blood-orange margaritas, a playful nod to Los Angeles's lounge culture. Their Southern California lifestyle has also resulted in a repertoire of refreshing salads, such as a Mexican chopped salad made with grilled chicken breasts, avocados, jicama, tomatillos, jalapeños and fried tortilla strips. As a soothing after-dinner drink, the Angles sometimes serve rose-petal tea, a beverage befitting an afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Angles' Los Angeles home makes a stunning backdrop for fetes both planned and spontaneous, professional and otherwise. The sage-green hilltop house—designed in 1947 by the Los Angeles architect N. Austin Ayres and renovated by the Angles—offers sweeping views of Glendale and Hollywood; inside, a minimalist Japanese-style interior sets off eclectic touches, like a striking nineteenth-century portrait of Alexandra's half-smiling Aunt Lydie. Alexandra prides herself on her ability to pull together a dinner party at the last minute: "Honestly, if there's food around and at least one of us has the energy, I'll get on the phone at five o'clock and invite seven people over for dinner at eight."
Her great-great-great-aunt Isabella would be proud.
Margy Rochlin is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and a contributing editor for Public Radio International's award-winning show This American Life.