Every year, Jim and Libby Calato invite hundreds of people, some close friends, some total strangers, to share a Thanksgiving feast. Originally, it wasn't their idea. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, you can't mess with tradition.
Twelve years ago, the Calatos moved their restaurant, City Deli, from a small shop on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, to the basement of the Koppers Building, a space previously occupied by Paragon Lunch. "As soon as we took possession of the space here," Mr. Calato said, "we had several people asking us, 'You're going to do Thanksgiving, aren't you?' "
They learned that for the past several decades, Paragon Lunch had offered an early Thanksgiving feast to its customers, and it had become a beloved tradition. Luckily for all of those fans of Thanksgiving, the Calatos were just about the perfect couple to inherit the job. They devised their own menu of family recipes and set the date for the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Each year the event has grown in size, with little advertisement besides a few fliers and word of mouth.
Standing in line for turkey at this year's feast on Nov. 17, the excitement was palpable. Some gossiped about nearby co-workers and bosses, others debated their choice of side dishes, waiting until the last minute to make up their minds. Heidi Branthoover came this year with about 20 friends and co-workers -- a poor showing, she joked, as she's dined in the past with groups closer to 30.
She has been coming to the Thanksgiving lunch on and off for 15 years, and she became particularly enthusiastic when she started working in the Koppers Building five years ago. Each year, when Libby Calato posts the flier about the lunch, Ms. Branthoover makes her own to email to everyone she expects to show up.
"You're not allowed to say no," she said, "[I'll tell them] arrange your travel schedule so we don't miss it. It's a day I look forward to every year." For her, the day has a special meaning, just as the holiday does. "The food is awesome," she explained, "but it's more what the day feels like. This is your work family."
Some, of course, come just for the food. This year Mr. Calato and his staff roasted 25 turkey breasts, made 70 pounds of Brussels sprouts and chestnuts, 30 pounds of mashed sweet potatoes with sour cream, maple syrup and chipotle pepper, and "I don't know how many mashed potatoes," he said.
"We kind of created a monster with the Brussels sprouts and chestnut recipe," Mr. Calato said. The labor-intensive recipe requires roasting and hand-peeling tray after tray of chestnuts. "We thought not that many people would order it because no one likes Brussels sprouts."
Of course they sold out, and when they considered dropping the dish the next year, they found that their customers wouldn't let them. This year, the whole staff pitched in to peel the chestnuts until their fingers were sore.
On the day itself, the doors open at 11:30, but many people start lining up before then. There are three serving lines, where food is plated cafeteria style. Everyone gets turkey, fluffy bread stuffing heady with sage, and a classic gravy. Other side dish options include corn, honey-roasted carrots and a broccoli casserole. Platters of rolls and containers of cranberry sauce, made with ginger and orange juice, sit on a central table. Another area holds desserts: apple pie, pumpkin pie, raisin-studded bread pudding and pumpkin cannoli with pecans.
Each year, Mr. Calato takes careful notes about when items run out, so they can make more the following year. This year, pumpkin pie was down to three slices by 12:45 p.m. All told, they served close to 600 people, and it's growing every year.
It's about the customers, but the reason they keep doing it is because they enjoy it. "Our customers are really, really fun," Mrs. Calato said. And it's not just the Calatos who enjoy it. "We have some past employees, they have other jobs, but they schedule their day off to come for this because they like to," Mr. Calato said.
Their daughter, Kathryn Capan, used to take the day off from her job to help as well. She's an enthusiastic cook, like her dad (the honey-roasted carrot recipe is hers), but for this Thanksgiving meal, she was on crowd control, helping direct the three serving lines and ensuring no one got too confused. She'll get her turn to cook, though.
Today, she and her husband are hosting Thanksgiving, with a little cooking help from Dad. "I'm going to deep-fry a turkey, she's going to roast one," Mr. Calato said. He's perfected his deep-frying technique over several years and says that Martha Stewart has the best recipe -- make a note for next year.
And while you're at it, put Thanksgiving lunch on your calendar as well. It's Nov. 15, 2012. Trust me, you don't want to miss it.
Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts
Serve these Brussels sprouts with a roast chicken or pork loin and it will feel like Thanksgiving all winter long. -- China Millman
- 3/4 pound fresh chestnuts
- 2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half
- 4 tablespoons butter
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
Soak chestnuts in water for 45 minutes. Score an X in the bottom of each one and roast in a 350-degree oven until tender, approximately 25 to 30 minutes. Peel when cool enough to touch. (Roast in small batches, as they are easier to peel while still warm.)
Blanch or steam the prepared sprouts to par cook. This step can be done a day ahead.
Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat until butter has melted. Add Brussels sprouts. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently until golden brown (approximately 10 minutes).
Add chestnuts and brown sugar and cook, stirring occasionally until Brussels sprouts are tender and browned in places (approximately 10 to 15 minutes).
Raise heat to medium high until caramelized, stirring occasionally. If liquid forms, reduce to a syrup.
Transfer to serving dish and serve warm.
-- From Jim Calato of City Deli, Downtown