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Here's How to Plan a Stylish Wedding Reception

Are you planning a stylish wedding reception but not sure what the protocol rules are?

Here's a few formal affair tips to help you plan your stylish wedding reception.

By Roberta Sabbatini


When it comes to planning a wedding, we want to get it right. If you want to have something stylish and elegant, even more so, which is why you should be familiar with certain protocol rules. Below are some of the most important protocols, when entertaining guests during a formal event.





The first aim of table arrangements should be to make guests feel at ease and comfortable throughout the meal.


Flatware can easily be symmetrical  arranged when the number of guests is even; when on the contrary it is uneven, the odd-numbered place settings are laid opposite the muffle of the even-numbered place settings.


When setting the table keep in mind the so called elbow room rule: this requires a minimum of 15 inches between place settings or circa 24 inches from the centre of one place setting to the middle of the next.


The lower edges of the utensils are aligned with the bottom rim of the plate, about 1 inch up from the edge of the table and 1 inch away from the trim of the plate.


Large Plates: these are laid 1 inch from the edge of the table.


Small plates: need to be laid in the centre of the cover , about 2 inches from the edge of the table

Cup and saucer are laid to the right of the outside piece of flatware. Below some general rules:


Bread-and-Butter plates: these are laid at the top left of the cover, usually above the dinner fork


All the cutlery needs to be laid on the table in order of use and never according to size. Therefore the flatware placement has to start on the outside of the place setting and moved inward toward the plate.


  • Knives and spoons are laid on the right side and forks on the left.  The soup spoon is laid on the right of the outside spoon.


  • The seafood fork is laid on the right side of the soup spoon. This is the only fork which can be placed on the right of the place setting.


  • If a guest is left handed, then the flatware will need to be placed the other way around.


  • The dinner knife is placed to the right of the plate, with the blade facing the plate. This custom dates back to the Middle Ages when a inward-facing blade meant good will.


  • In formal events, two dessert flatware are presented on the dessert plate: the dessert fork is laid at the left side and the dessert spoon or knife is on the right. The cutlery is then removed from the plate just before the dessert is served.

  • Fruit knife and fork are presented as the dessert ones.

  • Teaspoons used for coffees and teas are presented on the saucer behind the cup handle. The spoon handle faces the guest at a four o’clock ready- to-use position.




When finishing a meal, cutlery has to be placed on one side of the plate diagonally, with the handles parallel at 4 o’clock position on the right rim of the plate. The tips of the cutlery stay at 10’oclock position in the well of the plate. Knives blades have always to face inward, in order to avoid cuts.

The soup spoon in this occasion should be laid on the underplate of the soup bowl; but if the underplate is too small, the spoon shall go inside the bowl.


When cutting food and using both fork and knife, the fork is held by the left hand with tunes downward, while the knife is held in the right hand, low to the plate.



Guests are mainly right handed, stemware is aligned symmetrically above the dinner plate, in a shape of triangle or diamond according to the number of glasses used. Usually there is a water globe and two to three wine glassed.


In the triangle arrangement, the dessert glass is placed at the point of the triangle itself; the water glass is on the lower left and the wine glasses on the lower right side, with the red one glass being before the white wine one. The cherry glass right next to the white whine glass.

The diamond shape is quite similar to the above one, except for the white wine glass which is placed on the lower left of the red wine glass and on the lower left of the latter, the cherry glass is placed.


If the dinner has less courses, up to three or four, the table setting is less crowded and glasses can be arranged in a straight line parallel with the edge of the table or in a diagonal line angled toward the table’s edge.


  • The dessert wine glass is angled to the right rear of the water goblet or if there is more space, just to the right of the water goblet.


  • The champagne glass is placed on the right of the water goblet when champagne is the only wine of the dinner; if the champagne is served with one particular course of the meal, then it is placed on the table in order of use.


  • When juice is served as first course (let’s say tomato juice), then the relevant glass is placed in the centre of the cover on a small underplate; if it is served to accompany a meal, then the glass is placed at the right of the cover.




Tablecloths sets the tone of the dinner and 5 elements need to be considered while choosing the right one: dominance, visual weight, color, texture and pattern.


The first one refers to the overall design of the cloth; the visual weight is in relation with the dimensions of the room: a big room will want an elaborated, standing out table cloth to make the room looks cosier; a small room will need a brighter more linear tablecloth for the space to fell bigger.

Colour is as important as the visual weight and it is in direct relation to the dimensions of the room (lighter colours to make the room visually bigger or darker colour to obtain the opposite effect) and the tone of the meal. Pastel and bright colours  are for informal affairs (although sometimes pastel colors are used in more formal occasions) and white, ivory and ecru for black tie gatherings.

As a general rule of thumb, deep colours give a feeling of sophistication, contrasting colours are dramatic, metal shades are opulent and pastels, whites and off-whites are elegant.


Dinnerware and tableware don’t have to match in colour, but napkins have to match with the tablecloth.


Textures of the tablecloth are in direct relation to the tone of the event as well. For formal dining you will choose smooth porcelain, crystal finishes with satin sheen effects. Patterns will be subtle  and small, with embroidery of the same color of the tablecloth.


For formal dining you also want to look at the length of the cloth.  The length  is considered the distance between the top of the table down to the hem. At a formal dinner the tablecloth overhang is luxurious and usually almost touches the floor.


Placemats are not suitable for formal breakfasts but table runners, if luxurious can be used.




For a formal affair napkins should be the same color of the tablecloth, with subtle decors. In most cases, tablecloths come with the same color, visual weight and decor’s napkins. In these occasions, napkins are entered on the service place; if the soup is already on the plate when the guests arrive to the table, then the napkin is laid to the left of the forks.

When the napkin is close to the cutlery, protocols want that flatware is not touched.


In formal events, napkins have to be folded in simple shapes, like square, rectangle, triangle or shield. The corners of the napkins have to meet perfectly.


Napkins rings should not be used in these occasions, because they would cancel the original purpose of the ring themselves, which was to identify the user of each napkins so that washing efforts would be spared and the napkin being re-used. (This was at a time when washing machines were not common).


During a wedding, the service begin with the lady of honor, in this case the bride and service proceeds counterclockwise and end with the groom.


Service of Sweets

Fine chocolates and petit fours  need to be presented in special compositions and placed in the centre of the table, if it is a reasonably small one, or more compositions along the table if it is a particularly long, from the start of the meal. The sweets and chocolates will be offered to the guests together with the dessert. Nevertheless, between courses, guests can help themselves to one or two bites reaching the composition placed nearest.




The success of a meal, is mainly based on the people taking part of it and a great host will be able to match those people, that seated closely, will spark conversations and engage and entertain other guests sitting at the same table.


The seats of honour are on the right of the host and hostess and the second most important guests will sit at their left.  Married couples usually sit opposite each other and not side by side and a quite rigid protocol rule requires alternate male-female seating.


As mentioned previously, in Italy the couple will be seated at their  own table. If seated with other guests, it would be considered rude to leave them alone while getting up to great and thanks the other guests while having the wedding reception. Good etiquette suggests  adding the couple’s names to each of the guests tables, to show they will soon come to thank the attendees.




At formal dinners, a toast is always expected; a utensil is grabbed and gently tabbed on the glass to capture guests' attention. The  name of the honoured guest/s is called and the toast made. Do remember never to drink at a toast made in your name. You just want to call a thank you toast to the first one and therefore drink.





Somebody says that a person with poor table manners usually has poor manners in other areas of his life.


The Italian diplomat, Baldassarre Castiglione who in 1528 wrote Il Libro d’Oro (The Golden Book) translated into English as the Courtier in 1561 that basic rules for table manners were established.


At a formal dinner the hostess is the last to enter; ladies sit down without waiting for her, while the gentlemen wait. Men let ladies sit by pulling the chair at their right and later, when all the women are seated, he sits down.


Before unfolding the napkin, wait for the hostess to unfold hers. Napkins under no circumstances should be put around the neck, but gently set on the laps. Once dinner is finished, napkins should be left on the chair and not on the table.


When at a Wedding Reception, whether is the welcome cocktail or the seated dinner, guests should wait for the bride to start before commencing, unless announced otherwise.


Only small bites of food can be eaten at time. Always wipe the mouth and blot the lips with the napkin before taking a sip from the glasses.


In formal settings fingers never touch the food with your hands, unless some kind of fruit, dry rolls, bread (but first need to be cut  or broken in small  amounts), crackers, or when actual finger food is served in a welcome cocktail reception are served. The shell of a boiled egg can also be touched by hand wile in the process of cracking it.

Chicken wings are considered finger food and can be eaten with the hands.


  • Toothpicks are an absolute no. Remove food from your teeth privately.

  • Once a bite is placed on a eating utensil, eat it in its entirely to avoid unpleasant sight for others.

  • Knife is used to push food towards the fork; in informal dinners bread can make it.

  • Seat straight with the back rested slightly against the back of the chair;

  • avoid stretching your leg under the table;

  • don’t wrap your arm around the chair back of the guest sitting next to you; elbows needs to be closed to the body and off the table;

  • only if you need to lean forward then wrists and elbow can be on the table in order to lean forward;

  • food needs to be brought to the mouth and not the head leaning toward the plate;


To Fillet a whole fish

Cut the head of the fish with a spoon; then with the fork keep the body of the fish firm and slit it open with the pointed tip of the fish knife; lay the upper part of the fish flat on the dish; lift the skeleton/backbone of the fish with both the help of the knife and fork and place it on the side of the dish. You will eventually need to cut loose the bit of the skin attached to the tail.


Clams are eaten with a small fish fork; seashell food is usually served ready to be eaten or  specify utensils are given to crack the shell and eat the inside with a fish fork.


Fruit with Stone

Fruit is served with the relevant fork and spoon. When eating small fruit with stone (like cherries), a fruit spoon is used to both bring the fruit the mouth and to leave the stone on it.

  • Other fruits, like apples (once sliced), apricots, berries (if still on the stem) grapes and similar, can be eaten with the fingers. Nectarines and oranges are eating with fork and knives; fruits with pulp inside are cut in half and the pulp eaten with a spoon.


Long Shaped Pasta

It is an absolute no-no to eat long pasta (like spaghetti, fettuccine, pappardelle etc) with a spoon.


An empty space needs to be created at the corner of the plate and with a fork roll in that spot a small quantity of pasta.



Roberta Sabbatini

Italian Wedding Planner & Designer