While it may seem untraditional for Italians to celebrate Thanksgiving, the holiday has become the biggest fête of the year for the Elia family stateside. Angelo Elia—the award-winning chef behind countless restaurant concepts in South Florida—and his wife, Denise, open up their home to family, friends, and coworkers each year. To show thanks for navigating the unique challenges of 2020, the Elias welcomed loved ones to a Thanksgiving dinner oozing with Italian flair.
“Being immigrants, coming to America, and integrating with its culture has a special meaning for us on Thanksgiving,” Denise says. “Angelo’s family is in Italy. My family is in Brazil. We work so many hours together that you become family with the people you work with. And a lot of them also don’t have family here, so we are a whole bunch of pilgrims together.”
Born in Salerno, Italy, Angelo’s passion for cooking began at home under his mother’s wing. She instilled in her 9-year-old son the traditional ways to make classic dishes. Angelo says he incorporates her recipes and techniques into his menus daily.
Angelo moved to the United States at 14 years old with a dream to become a chef. After 16 years of grueling work in New York’s fast-paced restaurant industry, he moved to South Florida, where he met Denise at a restaurant called Julia’s in Boca Raton. The Brazilian native was attending cosmetology school at the time, and also worked in the restaurant business. The pair eventually married. They have a daughter, Giovanna, who graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in the summer (and photographed her family’s Thanksgiving dinner for these pages), and a son, Paolo, who is pursuing a career in real estate. Along the way, Denise has become her husband’s biggest supporter and business partner, working alongside him as director of all front-of-the-house operations and overseeing special event planning.
After working for Unique Restaurants in Boca and Aventura, Angelo moved to Fort Lauderdale to open Café Tutto Bene and the original H2O on the beach. He later opened Café Angelo, which is now known as Casa D’Angelo. The revered high-end Italian concept has stood at the same locale in Lauderdale for more than 22 years. “The people who come to my restaurant are local guests,” says Angelo. “They have been coming for years, and we are known for quality, great food, and great service.”
In addition to an outpost in Boca Raton and at the Atlantis Hotel in Paradise Island, Bahamas, in the fall of 2019 Angelo welcomed the third location of Casa D’Angelo in Aventura Park Square. He’s also behind four Angelo Elia Pizza Bar and Tapas restaurants—serving Neapolitan pizza and homemade pasta—and Angelo Elia The Bakery Bar in
“We do a lot of recipes from my mom like the fusilli and the homemade ravioletti,” Angelo says of the dishes traversing his various restaurants. “We do a ragu tomato sauce like my mother used to make. I’ll never change that. I try to keep traditional every single day.”
Angelo works closely with his executive chef, Rickie Piper, who manages the South Florida Casa D’Angelo restaurants and also plays a vital role in Thanksgiving dinner. “We speak the same language,” says Piper. “Not only the Italian but also the food we have a passion for. It’s all about quality over anything.”
To kick off the Elia family turkey day festivities, Angelo and Denise welcomed friends, family, and coworkers to their modern Intracoastal home in Fort Lauderdale with Aperol Spritzes, a popular aperitif in Italy, served by Koen Kersemans, the wine director for Casa D’Angelo restaurants.
“You don’t know who you’re going to see here,” says Peter Criticos, the general manager of Aventura’s Casa D’Angelo, who has celebrated the holiday with the Elias for many years. “It could be a guest you had from the night before; it could be one of the dishwashers. [Angelo] does open his doors to everyone.”
Overseeing the table holiday settings, Denise says she likes to use festive fall colors and textures like orange-colored plates and rattan chargers. She’s careful, she says, not to overload the table with decor, leaving plenty of room for food and wine. “I prefer it to be casual, so everyone feels at home,” Denise says. She also enlists help from Ann’s Florist on Las Olas for her flower arrangements. “I usually order small squares on the tables,” she says. “When everyone goes home, I like to give them the flowers. Even though our house is modern, I like to bring a little traditional Thanksgiving look to it.”
As the main courses baked and bubbled in the oven, guests helped themselves to a beautiful tray of antipasti complete with sliced meats, cheeses, and bakery-fresh breads. Dates with mascarpone cheese topped with fig jam, farro salad with wild mushrooms and lemon zest, and jumbo cocktail prawns with Sicilian olives rounded out the appetizers.
While they picked and mingled, Angelo and Piper finished up the main course—which is based on the traditional American Thanksgiving menu. “Angelo loves the American Thanksgiving tradition,” says Denise, who is also a crucial team member for day-of cooking.
Still, the family also likes to incorporate one non-traditional item on the menu. Last year they cooked up wild boar. This year, it’s porchetta (a boneless pork roast) prepared two ways (rolled up and flat) with fennel pollen that had the guests in awe. To pair with the meats, Kersemans chose a Belle Glos Clark and Telephone Vineyard pinot noir. A second wine—a 2015 Barbaresco Riserva Rabajá—was passed around for guests to enjoy as they sat for dinner.
The grand table spread featured lasagna with a fresh tomato béchamel and homemade mozzarella, which Denise says is a staple for Italians. The family also prepared a dizzying array of sides, including roasted Brussels sprouts with walnuts and a vintage balsamic glaze, roasted fennel with olives and cherry tomatoes, pan-fried polenta with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and pumpkin soup with roasted sunflower seeds
Planning large-scale dinners is the norm for Denise and Angelo. Over the past 17 years, the couple has hosted PACE Center for Girls Broward at their flagship Casa D’Angelo for the “Taste of Italy” wine tasting reception, which features an auction and four-course dinner, and raises funds for at-risk girls. They have also partnered and donated wine-paired dinners that are auctioned at fundraisers for organizations like the Humane Society of Broward County, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, March of Dimes, and Taste of the Nation.
“We feel privileged to live in such a beautiful place and have the support of this amazing community,” says Denise, who is also a founding member of FAB (Funding Arts Broward). “We feel it is our duty to give back to those supporters. More than ever, we have to work together to strengthen our community and those in need.”
After dinner, guests made their way outdoors for views of the Intracoastal while enjoying some alfresco mingling as Denise prepared dessert, which included Basque burnt cheesecake with fresh berries, pear and ricotta cake, and freshly baked pumpkin tarts.
It’s a sweet end to what Denise admits has been a challenging year. “More than ever, we’re thankful to gather this Thanksgiving,” she says.