How's this for a recipe for success?

Take a garlic-loving Metropolitan Council member who is the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services and was asked by Jesse Ventura to serve as his lieutenant governor.

Mix in an assistant Anoka County attorney who has an appetite for charitable work, says cooking is in his Italian blood and isn't afraid to make what his cooking partner calls "these putzy cheese things."

Sweeten with a charitable cause, a comfortable home atmosphere, lively conversation and maybe some of the wildest mashed potatoes ever served with baked celery with cream and pecans, or farfalle pasta with chicken artichoke sauce. For this, people have gladly paid as much as $2,500.

Welcome to Ristorante della Natalie, the menu says and then adds, "Thank you for Supporting Alexandra House," an Anoka County shelter for battered women. Or thank you for supporting Youth First -- Community of Promise, a coalition to reduce risky behaviors in youth in Anoka, Andover and Ramsey. Or thanks for supporting Free2B, which helps seniors, immigrants, the disabled, unemployed and other needy Anoka County groups.

The Natalie in the restaurant's name is Natalie Steffen -- the former Anoka County commissioner who ran the Minnesota Department of Human Services under Gov. Arne Carlson and now serves on the Met Council. (She declined Ventura's offer, by the way.) Her cooking partner is attorney Tony Palumbo. And together they cook six-course meals for the highest bidder -- with all the proceeds going to charity.

Longtime public servants from Anoka County who have known each other for 35 years, Steffen and Palumbo knew they shared similar tastes. Then, five years ago, they devised a way to share those tastes with others while benefitting needy causes:

Surprise du jour

They'd auction off full-blown meals, sometimes cooking things bidders had never before tasted, and meals that Steffen and Palumbo had never cooked. And they'd serve them at Steffen's Ramsey home, where there are two dining rooms, a stove any chef would envy, and where many a treat had been taste-tested by Steffen's nearly two-dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When someone offered five years ago to pay $350 to eat at Steffen's home, Palumbo said to himself: "For $350, you gotta give 'em more than fries."

Both have taken cooking courses and both were game.

Palumbo's specialty is pasta sauces, but so is "being courageous," says his wife, Jill Brown, Anoka County's public information specialist and a former speechwriter for Steffen.

"He's not intimidated," Brown said. "French cooking, Spanish cooking ... He's not afraid to try anything."

Neither is Steffen, who along with Margaret Langfeld, shattered a gender barrier in 1982 by becoming the first women elected to the Anoka County Board.

Appetites for adventure

Bacon-wrapped jalapenos. Roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. Baby carrots with Kahlua Bailey sauce. Acorn squash and chestnut soup. Just name it.

They usually ask winning bidders for basic menu suggestions -- and then let the creative juices and sauces flow, serving meals restaurant style.

"Why not?" asked Steffen. "I cooked for years for my church. Tony and I have talked about food, about wine, about a need in the community.

"So we ask what they like, we take whatever, make a meal out of it and -- you know what? -- they come back."

County Commissioner Dan Erhart, who has bid on a number of meals prepared by Steffen and Palumbo and says he has three coming, isn't sure which he enjoys more -- the meal, the conversation or the charitable contribution.

Always entertaining

"The cause is wonderful," said Erhart, noting that Steffen and Palumbo's meals have also benefited Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Mediation Services for Anoka County and Panther Foundation, which raises money to enrich programs for School District 16 in Blaine, Spring Lake Park and Fridley.

"It's always an entertaining evening," Erhart said. "Natalie has always been generous with her time and financially. She'd do anything for you.

"Tony's like that, too. And don't let Tony be modest. Tony is an excellent cook."

So is Steffen, who likes to put excitement into routine dishes. Instead of making mashed potatoes, she layers them with herbs, cheeses, vegetables and sauces.

"Give 'em something they don't normally find on a restaurant menu," Palumbo says. "Make it an exquisite table setting."

"And do it at my house," said Steffen. "Let them be comfortable. Let them relax."

Everybody wins

Steffen and Palumbo are good enough to lure repeat donors, who voluntarily pay more each year to be the winning bidder, Steffen said.

It's a win-win situation, Palumbo says. He and Steffen have fun indulging themselves with their "hobby," and the charities and meal participants leave the table a little fuller.

"We're trying to create an experience that people will remember," said Palumbo.

Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House, credits the two for providing "one of the biggest money raisers in our auction."

There's also praise from the taste testers who really count.

Yes, Palumbo does cook at home, said Brown. Not all the time, she said, but enough to whet their family's appetite for more.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419