The Thanksgiving table of Luke Ilardo’s childhood was littered with all the hallmarks of a Sicilian holiday.
There were “40-pound” lasagne and casseroles of pasta al forno “the size of three small children.” There were mountains of fried shrimp, fried veal escalopes and “trays of rice pudding that you could go swimming in,” Ilardo remembers.
And then there was “so much bread.”
Like the traditional American Thanksgiving, his family’s Sicilian meal was a “big, celebratory feast,” said Ilardo, co-owner of Doppio Pasticceria, an Italian bakery in the R. House Food Hall in the Remington neighborhood of North Baltimore.
He is one of the many Americans who mix foods from cultures around the world on their Thanksgiving plates. A recent survey by food company Campbell’s found that 63% of respondents like serving Thanksgiving dishes that reflect their culture. According to the survey, the countries most represented at the Thanksgiving table include China, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, France and Germany.
In the Baltimore area, more restaurants and caterers are serving Thanksgiving packages and pre-orders with items that go beyond the usual turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing. We’ve taken a look at what’s on the plate across the region.
“This is the Puerto Rican holiday meal.”
For Jayleen Fonseca, Thanksgiving tastes like pernil and arroz con gandules.
The hearty, slow-cooked roast pork and rice with pigeon peas is a table staple for Acción de Gracias, as Puerto Ricans call the Thanksgiving holiday.
Jesse Ramirez, executive chef, and his wife Jayleen Fonseca, CEO, owners of JesseJay’s Latin Inspired Kitchen in Anne Arundel County. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
But the star of the show for her family is pastel-colored dumplings filled with meat, raisins, olives and peppers. The dish is similar in concept to Mexican tamales, although Fonseca said Puerto Ricans typically make their masa from yucca, green bananas, potatoes and pumpkins, rather than corn.
Assembling pastels is a labor-intensive task, so Fonseca, who owns JesseJay’s Latin Inspired Kitchen in Churchton with her husband, Jesse Ramirez, has started offering them to customers who don’t want to make their own pastels for the holidays.
“They’re very difficult to make: there are a lot of different steps, and especially when working with these root vegetables, it takes time to cook them and get the mixture right,” Fonseca said. “We run out of pastels every year because it is something so unique and not that easy to find, especially here in Maryland. We have Puerto Ricans from Baltimore and DC looking for these foods.”
She and Ramirez recruit her family members to help make large quantities of pastels the week before Thanksgiving. Fonseca’s parents are from out of town and “10 of us will spend the whole day working and making pastels,” she said.
The family uses a recipe from Fonseca’s grandmother that has been passed down through generations. JesseJay’s customers eagerly responded to the range of pre-made pastels, ordering hundreds each holiday season for a taste of home or childhood.
“Whatever we make, we will sell it — whether it’s 40 dozen or 50 dozen,” Fonseca said. “Every year we try to make something at the restaurant so we can make more.”
JesseJay’s sells platters of pernil and arroz-con gandules large enough to feed four to six people for $60. Pasteles are $40 for a dozen.
The special orders aren’t just for Thanksgiving. Fonseca and Ramirez plan to sell another batch of pastels during the Christmas season.
“This is the Puerto Rican holiday meal,” Fonseca said.
“It’s something we’re excited to provide, especially for Puerto Ricans looking for a small home here in Maryland.”
Catering for Filipinos “far away” from home
When Rianna Stavrides’ mother moved to the United States from the Philippines, Stavrides wanted to find ways to make her feel at home.
“I came here as a food service intern,” said Stavrides, who herself moved to the Baltimore area 13 years ago, “and I realized that sometimes it’s difficult for immigrants to empathize with certain situations.” I always have asked: “What can I do to make my mother feel comfortable?”
The answer, she found, lay in cooking.
Stavrides runs Frisco Filipino Baltimore, a Baltimore County-based catering company specializing in Filipino cuisine. The company’s slogan “Lutong Bahay” means “homemade” – because Stavrides wants customers to feel at home while eating their food.
Her mother and brother join her in the kitchen. Her husband helps with food delivery.
“We look forward to catering events together,” said Stavrides. “We don’t just go to the mall as a family, we actually do things together.”
For Thanksgiving, she and her family prepare Filipino comfort food: pork and shrimp lumpia, baked sushi, Filipino spaghetti with bolognese sauce sweetened with brown sugar and banana ketchup and topped with sliced hot dogs. Although Filipinos do not traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving, many of the dishes in Frisco Filipino’s catering package are served during Christmas, an important holiday on the island.
“Pork belly is definitely a dish that Filipinos look forward to,” Stavrides said, “and sweet, sticky stuff,” like leche flan and laing, a spicy-sweet mix of taro leaves, coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and garlic.
Cooking of all these dishes begins three days before Thanksgiving and the family rents a kitchen space at a nearby church to have enough space for preparations.
Frisco, named for the area in the Philippines where Stavrides grew up, began selling Thanksgiving packages four years ago. She originally tried to offer American Thanksgiving staples, but customers told her they already had those bases covered. Instead, they wanted to bring some Filipino classics to the table.
Over the years, demand has multiplied: from five orders in the first year to ten to 20.
Most of her clients are Filipino and many work in healthcare, working shifts on Thanksgiving Day.
“That’s why they love the packages,” Stavrides said, “because they know they can have them delivered and ready for their family.”
Even their non-Filipino customers are usually related to someone of Filipino descent and want to bring Filipino staples to the Thanksgiving table. Her own holiday meal also includes American classics, Filipino comfort foods and Greek dishes – a nod to her husband’s heritage.
“I appreciate that,” Stavrides said of customers wanting to make their guests feel at home. “It’s nice to see people making an effort to make someone feel good through food.”
Leave the drumstick, take the cannoli
Luke Ilardo holds a cannoli dusted with pistachio crumbs, one of the Italian specialties Doppio Pasticceria offers for Thanksgiving. Doppio Pasticceria, a Sicilian bakery, also makes lasagna, focaccia, muffaletta sheets and mixed cookie boxes for the holidays.
Luke Ilardo’s Thanksgiving meals have always had a Sicilian feel.
Although he grew up in a family with Italian and German roots, Thanksgiving dinners were spent with the Sicilian side, where relatives ate mountains of lasagna and fried shrimp. Over the years, as relatives grew older and younger generations took over, more and more American traditions took hold.
“At some point turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce showed up,” Ilardo remembers. “I think like most immigrant families, when you go a generation away and some of that influence fades a little bit, you move a little further away from that tradition.”
Nevertheless, he makes it a point to bring some Italian classics to the table. He makes fresh focaccia while his brother makes carbonara and cousins bring the fried shrimp.
And “there’s still a charcuterie board that takes up an entire table,” he said.
Ilardo owns Doppio Pasticceria with Megan Cowman, who also has Sicilian roots. This Thanksgiving they are offering pre-orders for lasagna, focaccia, cannoli, biscotti, rice pudding and more for guests who also want to add a touch of Italy to their holiday meal.
The Thanksgiving menu is “a balance between what I would ideally offer and what people might be interested in who may have grown up with a very traditional American Thanksgiving menu,” Ilardo said. In addition to the pasta and pastries, there’s farro salad, sweet potato brioche and olive oil spelled cake with brown sugar apples.
Many of the dishes, such as the 12-serving lasagna, were chosen to accommodate customers who need to feed large groups of people. But Ilardo and Cowman also maintain family traditions. Doppio Pasticceria’s rice pudding, for example, is inspired by his great-aunt Zia Assunta’s dessert.
Megan Cowman and Luke Ilardo, co-owners of Doppio Pasticceria in the R. House, show off a cookie plate containing some of the baked goods offered in a mixed cookie box for Thanksgiving.
The mixed assortment of cookies “is something I always look for at a Thanksgiving gathering,” he said. However, unlike his grandmothers and aunts, he will not sprinkle every single cookie with incomparable rainbow colors.
“There’s pragmatism at play,” Ilardo said, “and then there’s the romance of this food that I ate as a kid and that I would love to see on a Thanksgiving table.”
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