For people unaccustomed to it, the idea of lasagna at Thanksgiving might seem extreme. When the holiday table is already buckling under the weight of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, and a giant turkey, the choice to add a tray of bubbling, saucy lasagna may not seem obvious – but that’s what makes it so special. Growing up, Searching for Italy host and actor Stanley Tucci would go to his aunt’s house for Thanksgiving, which tended to kick off with a course of Italian wedding soup, with escarole and chicken meatballs.
“And then there would inevitably be some kind of lasagna, or baked pasta of some sort,” he told Food & Wine. “And then of course, you had all the American stuff. There usually was always pasta. We find it very difficult not to have pasta on the table at some point.”
A big tray of lasagna is an Italian-American Thanksgiving tradition that has long signaled “special occasion.” Italian immigrants to America began incorporating pasta into their Thanksgiving feasts as early as the turn of the 20th century. The New England Historical Society notes that in weaving Italian influences into their feasts, including large antipasto spreads to kick things off, “Italian cooks successfully resisted do-gooders trying to Americanize their food habits.”
For that first generation of Italian immigrants, the holiday was quite foreign, so they drew from their own food traditions. As writer Frank Carrano recounted in the New Haven Register, “Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday, was not easily understood by the original group of Italian settlers who came from a place that had no comparable celebration … [T]he holiday was not really accepted until the children began to tell stories they had learned in school, of Pilgrims giving thanks for the land’s bounty.”
Those original feasts were typically all Italian food, but then second- and third-generations tended to adhere closer to traditional American Thanksgiving, with separate courses for lasagna and antipasto. At Food & Wine, we strongly believe lasagna can stand alone as the main event. “Lasagna has the stature and swagger to own the center of the Thanksgiving table,” we argued in 2020. “It’s also far, far less intimidating to make a lasagna than a hulking turkey.”
Of course, you have more Thanksgiving pasta options beyond just lasagna. (And there is always, always room for mac and cheese, a holiday staple.) Richie Arvidson, a friend of mine from an Italian-American New Jersey family, told me sometimes they’ll do ravioli. But usually it’s lasagna. “As long as I can remember there’s been a pasta course at Thanksgiving,” he said. “We’ll do it around 1:00 p.m., followed by the typical Thanksgiving meal with the traditional sides around 4:30 p.m.” I asked him if it ever feels like too much food. “It absolutely always feels like too much,” he said. There’s also always a full spread of antipasto, “which is key,” he added. “My mom makes it before every dinner occasion, even when we’re just coming over for no reason.”
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While I am Italian-American, the tradition didn’t take root in my family, which I think is a great tragedy. When my grandfather came to America, his wife – my grandmother – didn’t feel so confident in the kitchen, so “enough was enough” when it came to Thanksgiving cooking, my mom recalls. Our cousins, of course, started the feast with lasagna, followed by traditional American turkey with all the trimmings. “They always shook their heads in sorrow for my poor deprived father,” she says.
Tucci, who just dropped his first meal kit with S.Pellegrino for a simple gnochetti with sausage and broccolini, makes a convincing case for pasta at any holiday, really. “It’s really rustic, but it’s celebratory,” he said of the gnochetti, which is his favorite pasta and one he makes throughout the holidays.
Another Italian-American holiday tradition from Tucci’s childhood that he holds near and dear to his heart? The Feast of the Seven Fishes, on Christmas Eve.
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“Growing up, we would do seven fishes, in different forms,” he said. “And then when I had my own family, I did the same thing, but I didn’t do it in as many courses. I would do shrimp or something to start as an appetizer, and then I would make a fish stew, so you always had seven. I think it’s a really lovely tradition, and what I like about it too is you eat this sort of lighter meal at night, the night before, and then on Christmas, you have this enormous meal that incorporates every sort of foodstuff.”
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