Super Party: Host the Ultimate Super Bowl Bash

Small plates make long gains on game day.

Friend Zone: Caterer Lisa Epstein designed this wheat-grass faux football field, which presents an array of bite-sized, easy-to-create snacks and drinks. Gary’s collection of mini-helmets forms a color guard.
Photo by Joe Polillio

For the big game, think small. That’s how caterer Lisa Epstein calls the plays when creating a themed Super Bowl party.

“Super Bowl is all about grazing,” Epstein says. “It’s about snacking, drinking beer and watching the game.” To that end, Epstein, who owns Encore Catering in East Hanover with her sister Karen, draws from a comfort-food playbook that she organized into individual servings. No plates needed.

We asked Epstein to cater the ultimate game-day bash in the perfect setting: a memorabilia-filled man cave just completed for a Denville sports fan extraordinaire. “I grew up a huge Jets fan,” says homeowner Gary, 51, who works in money management. “My dad has had season tickets since the mid-1960s. We used to trek out to Shea Stadium—my dad and two brothers—to see the games.”

When Gary met wife MaryLee in 1987, “she was not a big sports fan, but quickly adopted sports as a love once she fell in love with me,” he says. “She became a Jets fan, and our kids have grown up as Jets fans.”
This year, as in the recent past, the couple will host 40 or 50 guests for the Super Bowl, being played for the first time in New Jersey. “We have all ages, from 9 years old to my father, who is 84,” Gary says.

Rivaling the on-screen action is the menu, with its own goal posts in sight. Epstein, along with her sous chefs, Stefanie Haim and Robert Szklany, conceived a mock football field surrounded by stands filled with hearty bite-sized fare and potables. We liked the idea so much, we agreed it deserved a mid-season test run.

On game day, Epstein rolled out an all-American lineup of winter favorites, including lasagna, sliders, french fries, short ribs with mac and cheese, chili and buffalo chicken lollipops. “These are good one-biters,” she says. “There’s nothing to it.”

Each item was prepared in advance, heated and divvied up into single portions. “Instead of big servings,” she says, “everything is served individually.” Epstein frequently shops at dollar value stores, where she finds interesting containers in which to serve her food.

For the Super Bowl extravaganza, her elaborate display started with two 6-foot tables covered with burlap. Sheets of wheat grass (purchased at a garden center or floral shop) were placed on the burlap to create the miniature football field. A wooden frame was then installed around the field. (Epstein simply removed the mirror part of a framed IKEA mirror.) Mock bleachers were made from spice-rack drawer inserts, readily available at dollar stores. The fans, or rather, the foods, were grouped around the field. Dollar-store mini beer mugs were lined up facing the end zones.

The food and the display clearly scored big with partygoers. Best of all, there was no chance the host would be sidelined in the kitchen. “Nothing is tough here,” Epstein says. “Everyone can enjoy the game.”

That’s essential for this family of five, whose enthusiasm for sports knows no bounds. Especially for the Jets. By week 10 of the current season, it was all too clear that the Jets were the longest of longshots for Super Bowl XLVIII, but that didn’t seem to dampen this clan’s enthusiasm. (Gary’s mid-season prediction for this year’s Super Bowl contenders: Seattle vs. Denver. “Seattle’s gonna win it all,” he says.)

To tackle the creation of an ideal man cave, the couple called upon interior designer Karla Trincanello.
“Gary’s dream was to watch three TVs at once,” says Trincanello. “Ask any man, that’s his dream.” Gary wanted the space to include a bar, a separate poker area and enough comfy seating to accommodate a small crowd. Trincanello began with a blank canvas—a canvas obstructed by support beams and a very low ceiling. Quite a challenge.

“The support columns had to stay, but we put them in a straight row,” Trincanello relates. “All the venting and mechanicals had to be moved so we could achieve more ceiling height.” The structural work was essential to keep the space from seeming, well, cave-like. “That made a huge difference,” she says.

Once structural changes were complete, the project turned into a case of maximizing function. “The TVs had to be somewhere that you could see them from anywhere in the room,” Trincanello says, so she designed a cabinet in the corner to house all three flat screens. One super-smart feature: The cabinets are on a roller system so they easily pull out for repairs.

Rather than theater seating or one oversized sofa, Trincanello installed individual reclining chairs, each with its own cup holder. She designed the gently curved tabletop bar area behind them so additional guests can gather round—either standing or seated on bar stools—and have a place to rest their food and drinks. “You can have 40 people down here without a problem,” Trincanello says. “It works really well for a crowd.”

No man cave is complete without a full-service bar, of course; this one is more like an actual kitchen, with a refrigerator, microwave and dishwasher, along with ample cabinet and counter space. Glass-front cabinets and open shelves accommodate not only glassware, but Gary’s sports memorabilia. His collection is so vast it covers virtually every inch of wall space. “I’ve been collecting memorabilia forever,” he says.

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