Luciano Pellegrini

The Italian chef shares his secrets for perfecting the all-American dish: turkey

Luciano Pellegrini, executive chef of Valentino at the Venetian, came to the United States in 1985 from his native Italy to work for accomplished restaurateur Piero Selvaggio. A winner of a James Beard Award, he has been at Selvaggio’s Valentino in Las Vegas since 1999.

Each year there, Pellegrini prepares a Thanksgiving meal with his Italian style of cooking, including stuffing the turkey with sausage or truffles, roasting it with gravies and sometimes serving it with polenta. He also features the popular seasonal pumpkin ravioli on the tasting menu, and for the casual Grill at Valentino, Pellegrini makes a tasty turkey meat loaf.

His favorite thing about Thanksgiving is the weeklong preparation leading up to the big feast. At home, Pellegrini calls his wife the “Mistress of Thanksgiving.” She is from Texas, so the holiday is big for her and their family. Pellegrini is in charge of cooking the turkey. “Lately, I have been a fan of putting the turkey in the brine for 10-12 hours beforehand,” he says. “That adds a lot of flavor to the turkey.”

Then Pellegrini cooks his turkey at a higher temperature (400-450 degrees in a convection oven) for less time than most people do. “I blast my turkey … and while doing that I make sure that I cover it with foil the first two hours, and then I would just leave the last 20 minutes uncovered just to get the perfect color.”

Pellegrini suggests buying a free-range tom turkey that’s about 18 pounds. Then he advises to use your oven as “a tool” in order to avoid common mistakes: namely, undercooking or overcooking the turkey. “At 400 degrees (in convection oven, 450 degrees in a regular oven), an 18-pound turkey I would roast anywhere from two and a half to three hours.”

You want the internal temperature to get up to 160 degrees, but when you are at 150, if you are to turn the oven off, it will naturally get up to that much by the time it cools down,” he says.

Afterward, he lets the turkey rest for 20 minutes before carving.

Tips for brining a turkey

Make the brine with 1 gallon of water, 3 ounces brown sugar and salt (either 1 cup iodine-free salt, 2 cups Diamond Crystal Kosher or 1½ cups Morton Kosher). Add fresh rosemary, sage and thyme (or any other herbs you have available) for flavor.

Dissolve sugar and salt into one quart of warm water first, then add mixture to remaining icy water. Brine 16-20-pound turkey overnight, or at least 12 hours. After removing from brine, pat turkey dry with paper towels before cooking in the oven. Also, if you brine the turkey, check its inside temperature after only 2 hours since the turkey will cook faster.

More Thanksgiving dinner tips

Stuffing: Chef Pellegrini says to combine ground dark turkey meat, sweet sausage, bread soaked in milk, some garlic and parmesan cheese. Shape it into a polpettone (meat loaf) and cook separately from the turkey. As an alternative to your average stuffing, cook it with a marinara-based gravy instead of the usual white or brown giblet gravy.

Chef Luciano Pellegrini’s stuffing recipe

Makes about 4 1-pound loaves.

  • Turkey ground meat: the dark meat and all scrap meat from a 16-pound turkey (about 4 pounds)
  • Bread: 10 ounces
  • Milk: enough to soak bread
  • Pork Sausage: 10 ounces
  • Parmesan Cheese: 1 cup
  • Roasted Garlic: 2 tbsp
  • Chopped Parsley: 1Ž2 cup
  • Nut meg: a pinch or to taste
  • Salt: to taste
  • Pepper: to taste
  • Flour: approx 2 cups
  • Egg: 6-8
  • Breadcrumbs: 4 cups

Mashed potatoes: “I flavor mine with butter, parmesan cheese, milk, cream and a touch of nutmeg,” Pellegrini says. And cut potatoes into smaller pieces to reduce cooking time.

Green beans: When blanching, make sure you keep them al dente for better flavor.

Dessert: If you’re tired of the usual pie, just sauté some apple slices in a pan with brown sugar, then top with your favorite gelato.

A starter wine: Martini & Rossi Prosecco, $13 (available at Lee’s Discount Liquor).