Highly polished 15-foot-long tables are most often found in swanky boardrooms where top executives sit in upholstered chairs, their gazes fixed on the CEO who's running the meeting.
In some ways, the scene is not all that different on Thanksgiving Day for the 59 family members who gather at the Hunt Valley residence of Mary Mangione, matriarch of five daughters and five sons, including Pete Mangione, Turf Valley Resort's longtime general manager.
Pocket doors glide open to reveal Mary's domain, a 15-by-25-foot dining room in which she joyfully presides over a gleaming expanse of mahogany that seats 14 quite comfortably.
When "turkey day" rolls around each year, extra chairs are extracted from behind a nearly imperceptible closet door that is wallpapered and paneled to match the rest of the room. This allows all 10 children and their spouses to be together at one table to give thanks.
"This certainly isn't the biggest house on the street," Mary says, pointing out that her living room is disproportionately smaller as a trade-off and is used as an office and library. "But I had the dining room, secret closet and kitchen specially made to my design," says the 80-year-old widow of Nicholas Mangione, the prominent Baltimore builder-developer who established Turf Valley in 1978 on the grounds of a thoroughbred horse farm in Ellicott City.
The rest of the Mangione clan is hardly overlooked at holiday meals. Mary's 37 grandchildren and one great-grandchild occupy the kitchen's two dining areas, which are situated catty-corner from each other and just off the dining room, keeping the entire group within earshot.
Unusual, perhaps, but her plan is lovingly crafted to ensure that a close-knit family stays close, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Pete Mangione says that when he was growing up, his family had a table big enough for 12 and they ate together every night without fail.
"That was a joint effort between my mom and my dad," he recalls, "and as far as I'm concerned, it was the best 25 minutes of the day."
The art of pasta
With nearly 60 people coming to Thanksgiving dinner these days, Pete says his mother has gotten meal preparation down to a science.
Three days before the holiday, the dozen or so family members who have replied to Mary's e-mails converge on her kitchen to make pasta, using the same recipe her mother used. It takes about three dozen eggs and 7 pounds of flour to make the 10 pounds of pasta required to feed such a large brood.
The flour is poured directly on the table -- never into a bowl -- and shaped by each "chef" into a volcano-like mound with a well in its center. Eggs are cracked into the wells, and that's when natural talent and deft wrists kick in.
Mary imitates for a visitor the circular clockwise motion that combines stirring, beating and folding to create the dough, a movement she's made countless times since she learned to make pasta many decades ago from both her mother and mother-in-law.
"The trick is to keep the walls of flour from falling and letting an egg get loose, because then you've got to try and save it," she explains. All grandchildren learning this blending skill start off with one egg and work their way up, as much to reduce frustration as to prevent waste and mess.
Mary Ellen, who's 15, can manage five eggs simultaneously, which has earned her the admiration, and probable envy, of siblings, cousins and even a few aunts.
"There might be one or two of my daughters who can do six, and I probably could, but Mary Ellen's really quite good," Mary says.
Her grandmotherly pride is showing again, though this time it might also be prompted by the recollection that she wasn't as prepared to take care of a household when she married in 1950 as her own mother would have liked.
"My mother was born in Sicily, and she used to worry that I'd get married and not know how to do anything," she said, laughing at the memory. Mary, who has only a younger brother, is a first-generation American. Her Sicilian father came to America alone in 1924, obeying strict immigration rules that prevented her mother from joining him for five long years.
When her mother and mother-in-law made pasta back in the day, they rolled and cut it for many years, but machines save a lot of time, Mary explains. "I tried an electric one once and it just wouldn't do, so we went back to cranking the machine."
Making pasta calls on cooking instincts that only time and practice can inspire, but there’s more to the ritual than meets the eye.
"The traditions that my grandmother started with her grandmother, and so on, have a much deeper meaning than just 'making pasta,'" says Nicole Hock, event coordinator and graphic designer at Turf Valley.
"Being in my Nonna's kitchen with everyone covered in flour, dough sticking to our fingers, the overwhelming smell of Italian spices, and laughter to the top of her Tuscan ceilings makes these memories so sweet to all of us."
Once the dough is made it's fed through one of two pasta makers, which flatten it to a thin sheet and then cut it for spaghetti, fettuccine or linguine, or leave it uncut to create wide strips for lasagna.
The pasta is left to dry overnight on two slatted wooden racks. Once it's dried, in order to maintain its freshness, Mary stashes the pasta in a lined oversized coat box that came from a department store.
"Watching everyone work together to make the dough, flatten the noodles, cut the noodles and then lay them out on drying racks is like watching a well olive-oiled machine," Nicole says.
'Best day of the year'
Before the homemade noodles can begin baking, there's the matter of adding the sauce. This is Mary's sole territory and starts with a trip to Trinacria, a century-old wholesale Italian market in Baltimore where she buys cheeses and other groceries, just as her mother once did.
Two turkeys begin roasting at 5 a.m. as Thanksgiving Day dawns, and as soon as they come out of the oven, four casseroles brimming with some variety of pasta are popped in. Dinner is served promptly at 2 p.m.
Pete Mangione says that while turkey is delicious, he doesn't eat any because his mother's pasta is "to die for."
"Mom is a fantastic cook, but the turkey is just there for window dressing," he jokes. "Thanksgiving is the best day of the year, even better than Christmas, because there's no hustle and bustle, and there's pasta."
About 12 years ago, Mary decided just to serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but there was a mass mutiny.
"We tried it once and went straight back to the old way," she says. "Too many people were asking me where the pasta was. There was just something missing."
Mary knows she's lucky that all 10 of her children live in the Baltimore area and they make a point of getting together at holidays. She estimates she gets 80 percent attendance at Thanksgiving and 100 percent at Christmas.
"Holidays are nonnegotiable," Pete says with a laugh. "Nobody ever intentionally misses one; they just wouldn't."
But what makes it even nicer is that all of the siblings, and some of the grandchildren, are involved in Mangione Family Enterprises, and so they have a lot in common.
"We all get along quite well," he says. "We're all spread out enough, with our own little piece of the family pie."
Just as the definition of family togetherness takes on a whole new dimension in the Mangione dynasty, so does fighting over leftovers, if there are any, as well as the age-old privilege of moving up to the "adult table."
"My oldest grandchild is 27 and just had a baby girl," Mary says, laughing as she begins her next statement. "But she says she'll never get to sit at the adult table."
While that may be true, it's not like anyone's being relegated to a wobbly card table on the other side of the house.
"This was my desire," Mary says while surveying the unique layout of the first floor of the home that she and her husband of 58 years had built in 2002, six years before he died. "It's very satisfying to be together," she sums up. "It's my reward for all the work I've ever done."
And everyone in the household knows that family takes priority.
"We are blessed to lead such a charmed life," Pete says. "We all lost a little of our sparkle when Dad passed away, but holiday meals at Mom's continue to be a magical formula for keeping us all together."