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"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly."

— MFK Fisher

It's Sunday night and the time is inching toward 6 o'clock. The doorbell will start buzzing any minute, but Ronda Giancreco is still busy in her Sonoma kitchen. With 49 dinner parties behind her so far this year, she has the cooking timed like a performance, executed with the kind of apparent ease that comes only with practice.

Within an hour eight guests will be enjoying creamy homemade ricotta with parmesan and herbs on warm bread — Giangreco's signature appetizer — before diving into a generous plate of rabbit ragu served communally over home-made pasta made less than an hour ago.

The wine will be flowing, the conversation humming and Ronda Giangreco will be one meal closer to a goal that seemed impossible one year ago - to host 52 dinner parties in 52 weeks for eight people a week, making every bite from scratch with fresh ingredients.

It was a resolution she took on, with the support of her husband Michael, after learning she had late onset multiple sclerosis and might within a year lose her mobility. In deciding how she would make the most of her time, it got down to one question: What activity would she miss the most? The answer was clear — cooking for friends.

Inspired by the comforting Sunday dinners she grew up with, the 56-year-old Sonoma woman, who worked in advertising sales and publishing, resolved that during 2010 she would cook up a big Italian feast once a week for friends and family. Last December, she and Michael sent out a mass e-mail to everyone in their contact lists, extending an open invitation to their table. A seat would be saved for the first eight people who responded by Saturday night. She acknowledged that the random guest list might lead to some "interesting pairings," but that would all be part of the experience.

"When I was diagnosed with MS a year ago, I thought my days as a hostess were over," she wrote Jan. 4 in her first entry on her blog, &‘52 Dinners.' "I have decided that I cannot let that happen. Even though I have times when I struggle with fatigue, pain and balance issues, I have vowed to stop fearing the future and plan for health rather than illness."

Giangreco has loved to cook since she was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, where her father worked as a stuntman and her playground was a film studio backlot. She honed her skills in recent years by traveling to Italy, twice taking classes with top chefs. But what started out as a year-long cooking challenge in January became over the course of 12 months something more significant.

"It really became more about the people who came," she reflects, 51 successful dinner parties behind her and one left to go. "We had such reactions and we were able to touch people in ways we didn't ever expect we would be able to."

There was the widow grappling with grief that Giangreco had to pester to come. "Afterward, she wrote me this note that said it really changed how she looked at life. If that's all that happened over the whole year, that's enough. It meant the world to me to make her smile."

The guest list may have started with people they knew. But as the weeks went on, the couple began inviting people they had just met.

"There were so many things about the experience that touched me," says Sharyn Bratsberg of Santa Rosa, who met the Giangrecos at a winery event and accepted their dinner invitation. "It's the warmth and generosity, the approach and the spirit she shows in how she's handling this challenge. She's made so many friends; her network has grown. If she needed something, all of us would be there in a heartbeat. It's a pay-it-forward kind of thing."

Some guests were complete strangers, like the guy who showed up with a bottle of wine in each hand who neither had laid eyes on before. Giangreco had forgotten that a friend had asked if her brother might come. He had called but she hadn't remembered. She put down another plate.

"We sat down to dinner and got to talking and laughing and all of a sudden he said, &‘It's been one month since my wife died and this is the first time I've gone out to be around people and this was the best night I could imagine.'"

That is the response of many people who dined at the Giangrecos' this year. Conversation never stalls. Like the best of hosts, the couple draw people out, often prompted by a question each guest must answer. Your most memorable kiss. Your best gift.

"There were times people shared stories that not just made us laugh, but made us cry," Giangreco says. "That was the whole concept, to give people a chance to talk and get together over a big plate of food."

Not every meal was flawless. There were the recipes that failed and the days when, beset with fatigue and pain, Giangreco wasn't sure if she could do it. There were dinners she cooked a day after returning from the hospital or while hazy on pain killers.

"Sometimes it caused some dinners to be a little interesting," she admits, with a robust laugh. "There were those dinners that needed more wine; there's no failure that more wine can't mask."

Neither she nor Michael believed they would be able to finish out the year, given the odds.

"Each week was a triumph," Giangreco says. "Each week meant that I won against this illness."

She credits Michael with giving her the support to hit the kitchen week after week. It wasn't easy. He had watched his own mother deteriorate and eventually die of MS when he was 16. Seeing it happen to his wife seemed like a cruel trick of fate.

But it also gave him a deep understanding of what she is going through. The $5,000 they spent this year on ingredients for more than 400 meals for some 125 people was, says Michael, the best money they ever spent, an investment in relationships, old and new.

Now 51 meals later, Giangreco, who will prepare her final dinner tonight, is still standing. Her resolution for 2011 is more prosaic — to shed the 10 pounds she joyfully gained with all that feasting.

The couple has invited everyone who came to dinner this year to stop by on Jan. 2 for a marathon open house, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Strictly potluck.

You don't have to do it every week, but Giangreco encourages others to throw caution to the wind and cook for their friends.

"If I'm fortunate enough to make it to 80," she says, "I'll look back on this as one of the great accomplishments of my life. This was my Everest."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.