Growing up in Ithaca, New York, "a coddled, overfed little prince of an only child" by his own description, Tom Valenti, the chef and owner of Ouest on Manhattan's Upper West Side, remembers the Thanksgivings of his boyhood as wonderful occasionsif his grandmother Settimia and her sister Pipinella did the cooking. "They were magnificent," Valenti says. "Always laughing, always really happy to be doing that Italian-grandma thing."
Settimia"five feet two inches tall by five feet three inches wide"is still his inspiration. Thanksgiving meals came naturally to her; after all, the hallmark of her everyday cooking was abundance "as if she were expecting, you know, the Green Bay Packers to appear at the door at any moment." On Thanksgiving mornings, she would go down into the basement, and soon Valenti would hear the telltale "bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk!" as she killed the holiday caponsroosters that grow "fat and yummy," Valenti says, after being neutered. But Settimia and Pipinella both died when Valenti was a teenager ("I lost about 60 pounds that year," he says), so he and his mother often spent Thanksgiving alone, "and were we going to do all that cooking for just the two of us?"
Valenti's mother often traveled for work. Before going she'd simply pack the larder with food, then she'd leave her son to fend for himself. For a teenager in a college town in the 1970s, the setup was heaven. "Everybody would converge at my house because there was no parental supervision," he says. Valenti, who still wears the long hair and wise and amused manner of a '70s wild child, fed the crowd.