Party Under the Pergola

Good friends enjoy fine wine under a pergola that is wired for lights and sound

The sweetness of a chocolate layer cake, baked by CocoLuxe Fine Pastries in Peapack (908-781-5554; is the perfect counterpoint to hearty, spicy Latin American fare.

Throughout the evening, guests enjoyed an assortment of fine Chilean and Argentinean wines by Chester Wine Spirits & Gourmet (908-879-0300; ).

Casey the Lhasa apso is an integral part of the festivities;

When Art Palombo and Lee Sestrich of Chester Township throw a party, they raise the roof. From April through October, the couple hosts their soirees outside, across the back lawn, and under a picturesque, wisteria-covered pergola. Fortunate guests party there, next to an antique barn, as they forget their cares and bask in the sun-dappled splendor.

Although Palombo and Sestrich enjoy cooking and serving all types of cuisine, one of their favorite themes is a Latin American dinner party, a nod to Palombo’s Chilean roots.

For this end-of-summer bash, Palombo whips up one of his favorites, pastel de choclo. Chile’s national dish, it’s a south-of-the-border version of shepherd’s pie topped with roasted corn. Guests who hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Argentina prepare other traditional dishes such as empanadas and chicken fricasee, all welcomed additions at the rustic dinner table.

The party commences with a toast—a refreshing Chilean pisco sour cocktail. Then, as sunlight streams through the vine-covered, 12-by-24-foot pergola, a long and relaxed evening of good friends, fine cuisine and sparkling conversation begins.

“In Latin American culture, gatherings of family and friends are a focal point,” says Palombo. “By creating this inviting outdoor space, Lee and I optimize our approach to entertaining. Our pergola provides shade in an otherwise sunny area and actually helps create a wind-tunnel effect that creates comfortable breezes on even the hottest days.”

Creating Comfort Outdoors
Palombo and Sestrich’s friend, Daisy Schimoler Perez of Peapack (see sidebar), created all of the colorful dinnerware and lanterns that grace the table. “Daisy is like family to us, and to entertain with all of her lovingly created custom pieces makes every party very special,” says Sestrich.

“Pottery is my passion because it’s art you can use every day,” Perez says. “People tell me what is special to them, and then I render those images, colors and written words into baking and serving pieces that their family can use for generations,” she adds.

Bright orange linen napkins, woven placemats and comfy throw pillows in a happy mélange of blue-and-white fabric all hail from Dransfield and Ross ( Tabletop nasturtium and zinnias, as well as free-standing bougainvillea plants are courtesy of Country Nursery Landscape Design and Garden Center, Chester (908-879-5471;

How the Pergola Got Its Roots
Palombo, of Arturo Palombo Architects in Morristown (, and Sestrich, who sells designer eyewear frames for Clearvision, reside in a circa 1915 farmhouse located on the front of the almost-three-acre property, but spend most of their social time “out back” beneath the pergola that adjoins an 1870s barn.

The pergola was constructed four years ago after backfilling the area adjacent to the barn. Almost immediately, Palombo began planting starts of wisteria along the footings of its pillars. After just a few years, the hearty wisteria began to envelop the frame of the pergola, and the thick overhead vines now keep the dining area shady on warm summer days.

Now that the pergola area is completed, Palombo and Sestrich plan to restore the interior of the adjacent four-bay barn as a secondary party venue for occasions when the weather doesn’t cooperate. This fall, a firepit, benches, and a small vegetable and herb garden will be incorporated into the couple’s partyscape, with a chicken coop and potting shed scheduled to make appearances next year.

“Our outdoor entertaining area is always a work in progress,” says Sestrich. “Since we hang out under the pergola all the time, we just like to put our feet up, sip a little wine, dream about our plans, and decide as we go.”

Palombo and Sestrich host parties several times a month, ranging from intimate soirees to large get-togethers. “We both cook, and we’re fortunate to have close friends who are all food people. So it’s not unusual for us to throw a last-minute party with everybody bringing something,” says Palombo.

Palombo and Sestrich admit that their cooking and entertaining styles don’t always match, but they’ve learned to meld their strengths over the years. “Art likes to spend time preparing fussier and more elaborate dishes, but I take a more laidback approach. I like classically pretty plates and napkins, but nothing too formal,” says Sestrich.

“About seven months of the year, we have people over, and sometimes Art and I like to go out back for a glass of wine after work or a light lunch on the weekends while we garden,” she adds. “It’s just a nice, casual place where we can relax whenever the mood strikes us. When I’m under the pergola, I feel like I’m somewhere else, far away.”

Dishing with Daisy

Daisy Schimoler Perez of Peapack was born in Havana, Cuba, and studied Commercial and Fine Art at Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico. In 1990, she moved to New York to study pottery at the New School.

Today, this married mother of two specializes in handmade, customized majolica pottery. Majolica is a term that describes a wide variety of European glazed pottery, usually earthenware with an opaque white background glaze and a brightly colored surface glaze.

“Even as a little girl, I was always mesmerized by the colors of my family’s majolica pottery,” says Perez. “I tried to find classes in the U.S. that focused on traditional majolica techniques, but I couldn’t locate a studio that taught in the classical style, so I had to teach myself. My process requires low-fire majolica glazes to achieve vivid colors and detailed designs.” Perez’s work is whimsical, elegant and, when studied closely, each handpainted piece tells a story.

Each plate, bowl, platter, pitcher and lantern is personally crafted and signed by the artist (908-342-6129; majolica


Building the Perfect Pergola

Based on his extensive travels, architect Arturo Palombo ( drew inspiration from the grape arbors and wineries of Latin America and Europe when creating his Chester Township pergola.

“We chose to cover our pergola with wisteria rather than grape vines or climbing roses for a couple of reasons—grape vines would have dropped fruit on guests’ heads, and deer would definitely have eaten the roses. Wisteria is a good choice because it’s fast growing and creates a dense canopy within just a few years.”

If you’re dreaming of having your own wisteria-covered pergola, be advised that the vines can easily overwhelm the surroundings if not regularly pruned.

Here are the basics to consider:

  • You’ll need a building permit from your community.
  • If you intend to cover your pergola with a hearty plant such as wisteria, remember that, in order to support all that weight, your pergola must be quite sturdy or the vines can actually wrap themselves around the structure and crush it.
  • Periodically maintain your pergola with a light powerwashing and staining.
  • Add comfortable, carefree seating, a large dining table, grilling area and a basic bar area. For minimal upkeep, keep it simple and rustic.
  • If you intend to do a lot of entertaining, wire your pergola with hanging lights as well as a sound system.

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