His wife died 30 years ago, and for a time, the comforting smells of holiday cooking were only a memory in Phillip Errico's red-brick rambler in District Heights.
But then, almost as an act of faith, Errico picked up where his wife left off: with the turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes and--this being a first-generation Italian American family--the lasagna, the meatballs and the eggplant parmigiana.
Now Errico is 78, a quiet man with white hair who is about to deliver an elaborate spread for 30 relatives today, with just a few compensations for age. He makes some dishes days ahead of time. He buys his sausage instead of stuffing casings himself.
None of that matters, of course, because this feast-making--in his home at the Heritage Harbor retirement community in Annapolis--is not actually about eating or about food at all.
"I do it," he says, his soft voice growing firm, "to keep the family together."
At a time of year when there is a bit of Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving at dinner tables across America, Errico reflects the prevailing spirit of the holiday a touch more intently than most.
He refinished his basement especially for these get-togethers, installing a full kitchen and a paneled dining area roomy enough for his extended clan. Every holiday, he arranges a restaurant-like steam-table buffet, warmed by Sterno flames.
He is not effusive about how it came to this.
"Most Italian men know how to piddle around the kitchen," he says, "but cooking I did in the Army." He recalls his years overseas in the Army Air Corps during World War II, when he served up pancakes and corn fritters and soups for thousands of soldiers.
Big holiday meals, he adds simply, are "an American tradition, and we're in America."
To others, this is a grander feat. But then, they say, "Uncle Phil" has always been the soft-spoken stalwart in a family of talkers with a bent for politics.
Errico's son, Michael, is a deputy chief administrative officer for Prince George's County. His nephew, James V. Aluisi, served five terms as the county's sheriff, retiring in 1998. His brother-in-law, Francis J. Aluisi, was once chairman of a Prince George's county commission and another brother-in-law, E. Michael Roll, was mayor of District Heights.
The spotlight never appealed to Uncle Phil. He was a craftsman--a painter and carpenter, with a mechanical sense and an artistic flair--who worked at St. Elizabeths Hospital and later the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
"Good job," he says. "I bless my stars every day."
Always, Uncle Phil had a big heart for holidays.
At Christmas, he made his front yard into a Yuletide spectacle--with a waving Santa, nine reindeer that blinked and rocked, and a Nativity set with flying cherubs. He built every decoration himself. His December electric bills were staggering.
Maybe it was natural that he drifted into the kitchen after his first wife, Theresa, died of a heart attack in 1969. The son of Italian immigrants, he married a woman who always kept red sauce or minestrone soup--or another ethnic staple--simmering on her stove top.
"Every time you went to Theresa's house, she . . . would have a meal for you," said Francis J. Aluisi. "I think it rubbed off on Phil."
To Errico's way of thinking, holiday meals were the only time the extended family gathered, as a rule. Oh, people saw each other at small events throughout the year. But on holidays, everyone came--and it was larger, richer, with memorable continuity.
He organized his dinners for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. He kept going after he remarried. His second wife, Katherine, is behind the idea wholeheartedly.
"It's that one time when you lose your identity and you become one thing, family," said his niece, Toni Lee Aluisi, a public relations and marketing consultant.
James Aluisi, the retired sheriff, said, "We have problems like everyone else, but this has kept our family together."
At Thanksgiving, Errico makes a large turkey and two additional turkey breasts. He whips his mashed potatoes. His sweet potatoes dwell in brown sugar and maple syrup, marshmallow melted on top. His cranberry sauce comes from a can.
Italian dishes are his clearest crowd pleasers, especially the lasagna: true to the classic family recipe, without meat filling.
"I make it just the way my mother used to make it," he says.
"Mmmmmm," says his sister-in-law, Louise Errico, 78, sitting nearby one afternoon.
Every holiday, he invites not just Erricos, Aluisis and Rolls, but their college roommates, colleagues and friends with nowhere to go. One year, eight seminarians from Baltimore showed up. Another year, it was priest who operated the nursing home where Errico volunteered for almost 18 years.
There have been so many different faces at the dinner table, in fact, that when Toni Aluisi was honored with a 50th birthday party, she joked to the assembled crowd of 120: "How many have had holiday dinner at Uncle Phil's?"
Almost everyone stood up.
As he has grown older, Errico has spread his cooking over more days. "You're cooking two meals," he says. "Impossible to do in one day. Impossible. You would be so tired you wouldn't be able to sit down for dinner."
Which is not to say that Errico does sit down for dinner. There are family members who say they have never seen him sit or eat. But he says he does both--just as soon as he is sure everyone else is indulging happily.
For all the constancy, last year's Thanksgiving brought a surprise. Just after the prayer before eating, his niece Patricia Aluisi, then 43, interjected a few words.
"I'm going to have a baby," she said.
No one believed her.
She showed her sonogram picture.
Eyes around the table turned teary.
This year will be Jordan Clare Aluisi Sachs's first Thanksgiving--and, because the family lives in Florida, her first chance to meet many of her relatives. "She's coming to Uncle Phil's house," Errico says with delight. "It makes you feel that life goes on."
CAPTION: Phillip Errico, 78, has his chef's hat taken off by Toni Lee Aluisi, his niece, while preparing lasagna at his home in Annapolis.
CAPTION: Phillip Errico plans to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 30 relatives today at his home in Annapolis. He redid his basement to accommodate holiday meals.