The dinner guests wore silk blouses, tailored suits, clingy skirts, strings of pearls and glittery earrings. Host Arely Mendoza-Cantos, dressed in a pristine cream pantsuit, stood to greet each with a firm handshake and a kiss on the cheek. Each guest was introduced to the group with a flattering comment designed to put the new arrival at ease.
Ease is a relative term, since everyone was assembled at Berto's Family Ristorante in Valley Stream for an etiquette lesson drawn out over a five-course meal with Mendoza-Cantos, founder of Always Gracious - The Academy of Etiquette and Charm, based in Malverne.
Learning by doing
"We'll start with how you approach and sit down at the table," said Mendoza-Cantos, as she rose from the table smoothly and stood behind her chair. "You enter and exit from the left. You stand directly behind the chair and grasp it with both hands and pull it out and sit about halfway back in the chair with your back straight. You then open your napkin half way."
Then, each of her five guests - all women ranging in age from 28 to "almost 40" - did the same. No scraping sounds on the floor, no snapping of napkins.
All waited politely, almost eagerly, to follow Mendoza-Cantos' lead.
She ate no bruschetta. They ate no bruschetta.
She ordered soup. They ordered soup.
Among the lessons: Soup is always spooned by scraping lightly along the rim to avoid drips. Most soups should be eaten from the side of the spoon, except cream-based soups, which may be drawn from the tip.
"What do you do if you don't like something you've eaten?" asked Johanna Abreu, 28, a business manager from the Bronx.
"The implement you used to put it in your mouth is the implement you use to take it out," answered Mendoza-Cantos, "except if it is a fish bone. Then, for safety and speed reasons, you can use your fingers."
Carol Meltzer, a stay-at-home mom of three from Oceanside who politely declined to give her age, asked about when it's appropriate to eat food with your fingers.
"If something is on your bread plate, you can pick it up with your fingers. If it is on the dinner plate, you use a knife and fork," Mendoza-Cantos explained patiently.
The evening carried on, with Mendoza-Cantos sprinkling in practical lessons and amusing anecdotes between courses. Among the surprises: Women, she says, should use a napkin to discreetly remove lipstick before the meal begins to avoid leaving telltale prints on stemware.
"It may be sexy at home with your husband, but not at dinner with others," she said.
And what of getting one last taste of that oh-so-delicious sauce left on the plate at the end of the meal?
"You will break off a piece of bread, spear it with your fork, wipe it around the plate, and then eat it from the fork," said Mendoza-Cantos.
Out of bread? You're out of luck.
Always Gracious 'Table Etiquette for Adults'
WHEN | WHERE 8-10 p.m. Jan. 21 and Feb. 11 at Berto's, 31 Rockaway Ave., Valley Stream; also Feb. 3 at Rose & Hunt Restaurant at Fox Hollow, 7725 Jericho Tpke., Woodbury
INFO 516-593-3817, alwaysgracious.com
COST $95 (includes five-course meal). Reservations required.
The Mosaic Tea Room
INFO 516-572-0730, aamoflongisland.org
COST $20 (includes tasting and desserts)
Learn about hosting a proper tea service and manners with Freeport-based etiquette consultant Wilma Tootle.
Table etiquette for families
WHEN | WHERE 1-3 p.m. Jan. 29 and Feb. 26 at Berto's in Valley Stream
INFO 516-593-3817, alwaysgracious.com
COST $55 a person (includes three-course lunch)
Families with children at least 6 years old can learn the basics of table etiquette.
Metropolitan Center for Etiquette, Protocol and French Studies
WHEN | WHERE Two- to six-hour classes by appointment at 84-17 Homelawn St., Jamaica Estates
INFO 718-297-7557, nyfrenchsummercamp.com
COST $55-$85 an hour per person
Mireille Nastorg-Mykel offers etiquette classes that cover do's and don'ts for dining, introductions and conversations.