Uncle Phil's Thanksgiving

Tradition: For Errico family and friends, the holiday is all about Italian food and turkey, and the relative who has been fixing it for 30 years.

November 24, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Every October, Philip Errico starts checking his kitchen shelves, counting the cans of Italian tomatoes and figuring out how many more boxes of spaghetti he'll need for Thanksgiving.

For the 78-year-old Annapolis resident, the last days of October for the past 30 years have signaled the start of a frenzied crescendo to the holiday. It all culminates on Thanksgiving Day, when Errico lovingly prepares an Italian feast for about 30 relatives who show up hungry -- often with friends in tow.

Errico's Thanksgiving dinners are memorable for his family not just for the sumptuous dishes he creates -- eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, Italian meatballs and sausage, home-made pasta, just to name a few mouth-watering preludes to the conventional turkey, stuffing and mashed and sweet potatoes. The meals are treasured even more for the sense of family that Errico -- or Uncle Phil, as he is better known -- fosters during the gatherings.

In an age when families often are scattered across the country and busy schedules prevent frequent get-togethers, Uncle Phil has painstakingly prepared Thanksgiving dinner year after year to keep his tight-knit clan close. The retired maintenance worker started cooking the dinner himself when his first wife, Theresa -- the family matriarch -- died in 1969. He worried that his relatives would grow apart if someone didn't storm the kitchen every November, whipping up lavish dinners.

"It's for the love of the family," said Uncle Phil, well-known in his family as a man of few words. "What else do you do it for?"

Thanksgiving at Uncle Phil's began in the late 1940s, when he married the daughter of a widowed Italian-American coal miner who grew up caring -- and cooking -- for her six younger siblings after their mother died. The Erricos began descending upon Aunt Theresa's Forestville home during Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters for elaborate home-cooked dinners.

"She was a wonderful woman," said niece Toni Lee Aluisi, 52. "She had food on her stove 24 hours a day, whether it was clam spaghetti or minestrone soup. You knew you could stop by any time, and she would feed you."

When the Erricos and other family members moved to District Heights in the early 1950s, Uncle Phil and Aunt Theresa found themselves surrounded by relatives who lived within blocks of each other. And the family began gathering around picnic tables on driveways every Sunday to share spaghetti and tales of their week.

"Growing up," Aluisi said, "you knew we were going to have dinner every Sunday. But whose house it was, you just weren't sure."

Uncle Phil helped Theresa out with small chores in the kitchen, ladling out food for their 20 to 40 guests every holiday. But when his wife suddenly died in 1969 of a heart attack, he began worrying about his family.

That Thanksgiving he put aside his grief momentarily, and began to cook.

Growing up in Southeast Washington with a mother who was renowned for her calves' liver fried in olive oil with oregano and hot peppers, Uncle Phil learned about homemade excellence at an early age while hanging out in the kitchen. But he didn't pick up a spatula until World War II, when he served as a cook in the Army from 1942 to 1945 at a Salt Lake City base, quickly learning to feed 1,000 men in an hour.

After the war, he met and married Theresa, and the cooking lessons continued.

"All Italian men like to cook or hang around the stove," Uncle Phil said. "Until your wife kicks you out of the kitchen."

His sisters-in-law helped out that Thanksgiving in 1969, but Uncle Phil has single-handedly prepared the holiday meals ever since.

He takes his feasts so seriously that when he and his second wife, Katherine, moved to a single-family home in Heritage Harbour, a community for seniors in Annapolis about 20 years ago, he spent $5,000 to gradually convert his basement into a mauve-carpeted dining hall, complete with a kitchen.

"I knew I should have bought a house with a [banquet] hall attached on the back," he said. "That's where I made a mistake."

His Thanksgivings always start with hors d'oeuvres such as chili con queso. ("An American dip, but it's good," he said. "It don't look good, but one taste and you're hooked."). Then guests gather around the long table to say a prayer and observe a moment of silence for those who are not with them.

Then Uncle Phil begins ladling out the pasta, meatballs and sausages. While his guests begin eating, he starts carving the turkey. He doesn't eat much at his own dinners -- he's too busy walking around the table, making sure his guests have enough on their plates, earning him an apron from his nieces several years ago that reads: "Uncle Phil. Did you get enough to eat?"

Uncle Phil's guests over the years have been a hodge-podge of friends and family. One year, he invited a dozen priests with whom he'd become acquainted. Other years, there were relatives' boyfriends, girlfriends and colleagues.

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