Put an Italian spin on the traditional Thanksgiving spread

November 29, 2020 | Thanksgiving, with an Italian spin (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON Step through the double doors at 1525 Wisconsin Ave. NW, and you’ll be instantly transported from urban to Umbria.

An old farm scooter in the entryway is filled with local produce and surrounding shelves are stocked with imported pastas, olive oils, coffees and ceramics. Just beyond the packaged provisions is a wine shop, a butcher counter, a cheesemonger and a cafe.

Via Umbria is a passion project for D.C. couple Bill and Suzy Menard. After developing an affinity for Italy and the artists who craft its food and culture the couple launched an online business to sell imported Italian goods. That has since evolved into an expansive two-story Georgetown shop, complete with a restaurant and an art gallery on the second floor.

Leading the kitchen at Via Umbria is Johanna Hellrigl, who whips up everything from vincisgrassi to vegetable salads to supply the cafe and intimate seated dinners. And this time of year, Hellrigl’s mind is on Thanksgiving.

The chef’s obsession with the holiday dates back to her childhood, which she spent working in her family’s Italian restaurant. Thanksgiving was a rare day off for the family and preparing a big feast wasn’t how they wanted to spend the day. Ever since, Hellrigl has been on a mission to create her own quintessential Thanksgiving experience.

“Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at Thanksgiving because I just started to try and find ways to bring in my culture and my heritage [in Italy], as well as my culture and my heritage in the United States,” Hellrigl said.

If you’re looking to put a new spin on traditional Thanksgiving dishes this year, Hellrigl has some ideas. Here are her tips on how you can incorporate Italian flavors into the American holiday:

Stick to seasonal: The first way to make sure your feast represents an Italian one is to stick to seasonal ingredients. In November, states in the mid-Atlantic see an abundance of apples, Brussels sprouts, fennel, kale, potatoes, pumpkins, turnips and more.

Shake up your stuffing: Instead of making your stuffing from sourdough or cornbread, Hellrigl recommends a hearty Italian bread, such as ciabatta or rustico. She likes to combine the cubed pieces of bread with roasted chestnuts, dried figs and pancetta that’s been sauteed with leeks, onions and white wine, for a side dish that’s bursting with Italian flavors.

Highlight sweet and sour: Brussels sprouts roasted with olive oil are pretty delicious as-is, but to take the dish to the next level, Hellrigl likes to roast the baby cabbages with pancetta in a date-flavored balsamic vinegar.

You can also experiment with agrodolce in your vegetable dish, which is basically Italy’s sweet-and-sour sauce, made from a sugar and vinegar reduction. Hellrigl suggests putting this on the leaves of the Brussels sprouts and roasting them.

“If you just take off the Brussels sprout leaves and crisp that up, it’s a different experience than your typical whole Brussels sprouts that people do,” she said.

A new play on pie: Most pumpkin pie recipes call for sweetened condensed milk, but Hellrigl says mascarpone cheese is a tasty substitute for the sugary canned product.

“It’s a really great way to get a creamy, different type of texture instead of using sweetened condensed milk, which isn’t the healthiest thing,” she said.

[Try this recipe for pumpkin mascarpone pie from Epicurious.]

Instead of a graham cracker crust, Hellrigl likes to make a crust from crushed amaretti cookies.

Tackling the turkey: There isn’t a single ingredient that makes Hellrigl’s turkey scream “Italian;” it’s a combination of seasonings that shape the protein’s overall flavor. Hellrigl starts her turkey with a brine, which she says infuses flavor into the meat. This year, she is using juniper berries, apple cider and sage.

To keep the turkey moist and evenly browned, she removes the backbone and cooks it in a butterfly position (this is called a spatchcock turkey). She also rubs butter under the skin.  

Curating a cheese board: Setting out a cheese and charcuterie board is a great way to offer guests something to nibble on before sitting down to dinner. Hellrigl says the key to building a gourmet board is to make sure it’s balanced. In addition to plating a variety of soft and hard cheeses, offer sweet, sour and savory accouterments, such as mostardas (an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard-flavored syrup), giardiniera (spicy Italian pickles), compotes, nuts and dried fruits.

If you’re strapped for time this Thanksgiving, Hellrigl is here — to help. Via Umbria is taking Thanksgiving orders for everything from farm-raised turkeys to cheese and charcuterie platters, bourbon-vanilla cranberry sauce, stuffing kits, bruleed pumpkin pies and more. Visit the store’s website for more information.

Via Umbria is also hosting a number of cooking classes and dinners throughout November and December. Visit their website for information on menus and dates. 

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