With the high price of gas taking a chunk out of budgets these days, entertaining at home rather than at a restaurant may ease the strain.

An impromptu appetizer-wine party is a good way to gather friends, add a little spice to life and have some fun. It's incredibly easy to pull off if you enlist some help from the array of quality products now available at supermarkets and specialty stores. You don't have to make everything yourself - or feel stress or guilt about serving ready-made items. If guests offer to contribute, ask them to bring a bottle of wine.

"I love having friends over to my house," said Govind Armstrong, co-owner of Table 8 in Los Angeles and South Beach, Fla., and author of "Small Bites Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate Occasion & Lavish Parties (Clarkson Potter/Publishers; $30), his first cookbook. Armstrong, who grew up in Encino, serves seasonal California cuisine on his market-driven restaurant menu.

"Entertaining should be loose. I try not to impose too much structure, as every party has its own personality. I generally have appetizer parties with five or six or a dozen people over at a time. It is the easiest way to entertain. I would prepare four or five items - and normally make them all - but if I'm in a pinch, I'll buy some components like tapenade, hummus, etc."

Choose food that can be prepared or prepped ahead so you only need to focus on last-minute presentation details. Mix and match foods from around the globe - Spanish, Italian, Tex-Mex, Mediterranean and the like - or choose a single theme. Include a wide range of items, from pre-prepared and ready-to-go dishes to bites that the guests can assemble and customize to their liking.

"I definitely would offer both a few specialty drinks [such as mojitos or Table8 Sangria] and wine.

"Recently I've been drinking sauvignon blanc from New Zealand [Craggy Range, about $20 a bottle], which goes beautifully with all these appetizer suggestions." *