Baltimore restaurants serve Thanksgiving meals influenced by global cuisines, from Italy to the Philippines
Luc Ilardo’s childhood Thanksgiving table was filled with all the hallmarks of a Sicilian feast.
There was “40-pound lasagna” and casserole bowls of forno pasta “the size of three little kids.” There were mountains of fried shrimp, fried veal chops, and “trays of rice pudding you could swim in,” Ilardo recalls.
Then there was “much bread.”
Like a traditional American Thanksgiving, his family’s Sicilian-style meal was “a big festive feast,” said Ilardo, co-owner of Doppio Pasticceria, an Italian bakery located in the R. House food hall in North Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood.
He is among many Americans who incorporate foods from cultures around the world into their Thanksgiving dishes. A recent study by food company Campbell found that 63% of participants enjoy serving Thanksgiving dishes that reflect their culture. The survey found that some of the countries most represented at the Thanksgiving table include China, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, France and Germany.
In the Baltimore area, a growing number of restaurants and caterers are offering Thanksgiving specials and pre-orders with food beyond the standard turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing. We’ve taken a look at what’s on the board across the region.
For Jaylen Fonseca, Thanksgiving tastes like pernil and arroz condoles.
Delicious slow-cooked roast pork and rice with peas are staples on the Acción de Gracias table, as Puerto Ricans call their Thanksgiving holiday.
But for her family, the star of the show is the pastilles, pockets of masa dough filled with meat, raisins, olives and peppers. The dish is similar in concept to Mexican tamales, although Fonseca said Puerto Ricans typically make masa with yuca, green bananas, potatoes and squash, rather than corn.
Assembling pastilles is a labor-intensive task, so Fonseca, who owns JesseJay’s Latin Inspired Kitchen in Churchton with her husband, Jesse Ramirez, began offering them to customers who didn’t want to make them themselves for the holidays.
“It’s very difficult to make: there are a lot of different steps, and especially working with these root vegetables, it takes a long time to cook them and prepare the masa properly,” Fonseca said. “We sell pastel every year because it’s something unique and not easy to find, especially here in Maryland. We have Puerto Ricans coming from Baltimore and D.C. looking for these foods.”
She and Ramirez enlist their family members to help make large batches of pastels the week before Thanksgiving. Fonseca’s parents would come from out of town “and we would spend the whole day, there would be like 10 of us, working and making pastels,” Fonseca said.
The family uses a recipe from Fonseca’s grandmother, which has been passed down through the generations. JesseJay customers have eagerly responded to the offering of pre-made pastels, ordering hundreds of them each holiday season for a taste of home or childhood.
“Whatever we make, we will sell, whether it’s 40 dozen or 50 dozen,” Fonseca said. “Every year, we try to prepare in the restaurant so we can achieve more.”
JesseJay’s sells Pernelle and Arroz Condoles large enough to feed four to six people for $60. Pastels are $40 for a dozen.
Special orders aren’t just for Thanksgiving either. Fonseca and Ramirez plan to produce another batch of pastels to sell at Christmas as well.
“This is the Puerto Rican holiday meal,” Fonseca said.
“It’s something we love to offer, especially to those Puerto Ricans looking for a tiny home here in Maryland.”
When Rihanna Stavridis’ mother moved to the United States from the Philippines, Stavridis wanted to find ways to make her feel at home.
“I came here to work as a culinary apprentice,” said Stavridis, who herself moved to the Baltimore area 13 years ago. “And I realized that for immigrants, it’s sometimes difficult to feel comfortable immersing ourselves in certain situations. I always wondered: What Can I do so that my mother feels comfortable?
I found the answer was through cooking.
Stavridis runs Frisco Filipino Baltimore, a Baltimore County-based catering company specializing in Filipino cuisine. The company’s slogan “Lutong Bahay” means “home cooking” – because Staffrids wants customers to feel at home when they eat her food.
She is joined in the kitchen by her mother and brother. Her husband helps deliver food.
“We are looking forward to catering together at events,” Stavridis said. “Not only do we go to the mall as a family, we actually do things together.”
For Thanksgiving, she and her family prepare Filipino comfort foods: pork and shrimp lumpia, baked sushi, and Filipino pasta with bolognese sauce sweetened with brown sugar and banana ketchup and topped with sliced sausage. Although Filipinos do not traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving, many of the dishes in Frisco Filipino’s catering package are served on Christmas, a major holiday on the island.
“Pork belly is definitely one of the dishes that Filipinos look forward to eating,” Stavridis said, and “sweet, sticky things,” like lychee flan and ling, a spicy-sweet mixture of taro leaves, coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and garlic. .
Cooking for all of these dishes begins three days before Thanksgiving, and the family rents kitchen space at a nearby church to provide enough space for preparations.
Frisco, named after the area in the Philippines where Stavridis grew up, began selling Thanksgiving packages four years ago. Originally, she tried offering American staples for Thanksgiving, but customers told her they already had those bases covered. Instead, they wanted to add some Filipino classics to the table.
Over the years, demand has doubled: from five in the first year, to 10, to 20.
Most of her clients are Filipinos, many of whom work in the health care field, with shifts on Thanksgiving Day.
“That’s why they love the packages, because they know they can deliver them and have them ready for their families,” Stavridis said.
Even her non-Filipino customers are usually attached to someone of Filipino heritage and want to include Filipino staples on their Thanksgiving table. Her holiday meal includes American classics, Filipino comfort foods, and Greek dishes as well — a nod to her husband’s heritage.
“I appreciate that,” Stavridis said of clients looking to make their guests feel at home. “It’s nice to see people making an effort to make someone feel good through food.”
Luc Ilardo’s Thanksgiving meals have always had a Sicilian flair.
Although he grew up in a family with Italian and German roots, he would spend Thanksgiving dinner with a Sicilian side, where relatives would dine on piles of lasagna and fried shrimp. Over the years, as relatives grew older and generations younger, more American traditions began to make their way to the table.
“At some point, the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce started coming in,” Ilardo recalls. “I think, like most immigrant families, when a whole generation comes out and some of that influence starts to fade a little bit, you move away from that tradition a little bit.”
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But he still stresses the need to include some basic Italian foods on the table. He prepares fresh focaccia, while his brother makes carbonara and his cousins bring fried shrimp.
“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 heritage. This Thanksgiving, they’re offering pre-orders of lasagna, focaccia, cannoli, biscotti, rice pudding and more for diners who also want to add a taste of Italy to their holiday meal.
The Thanksgiving menu is “a balance between what I would ideally serve and what people who might have grown up with a very traditional American Thanksgiving spread would be interested in,” Ilardo said. In addition to pasta and pastries, there is farro salad, sweet potato brioche and olive oil cake with apples and brown sugar.
Many dishes, such as the 12-serving lasagna, have been chosen to meet the needs of customers who need to feed large groups of people. But Ilardo and Caumann also weave in family traditions. For example, the rice pudding that Doppio Pasticceria makes is inspired by the dessert made by his great-aunt Zia Assunta.
The mixed cookie batch “is something I always look for at a Thanksgiving gathering,” he said. Unlike his grandmothers and aunts, he won’t be sprinkling rainbow colors on every piece of cake.
“There’s a pragmatism to it, and then there’s a romance that’s what I grew up eating and what I like to see on the Thanksgiving table,” Ilardo said.