Joe Vitale’s parents may have hosted the entire team for dinner when they visited his hometown of St. Louis earlier this month, but that was nothing compared to Thanksgiving at the Vitales with their big Italian family.
“Growing up, on my dad’s side, I had 35-plus cousins,” said the Penguins forward, who has five siblings. “My dad was one of six, so you’re looking at close to 50-60 people on every holiday. It was amazing. It was a miracle how we got everyone in that house. But we managed, and everyone ate and everyone was satisfied.”
Goalie Jeff Zatkoff is a pro at feeding people as well (though certainly not as many), as he was in charge of cooking the turkey last year when he was with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and a bunch of the guys got together to celebrate American Thanksgiving.
“The last couple years I’ve gotten into turkey frying,” he said. “Last year was a lot of fun in Wilkes-Barre, a lot of the guys were down there and we had (Thanksgiving) at one of the guys’ house. I brought the turkey fryer over and it was great just to be able to sit around outside, it was a nice day to play catch. Pretty laid back, it’s nice when you don’t have games on that day and you’re able to relax.”
How’d Zatkoff's teammates rate his cooking?
“Obviously if you’ve ever had a fried turkey, nothing can compare to it,” he laughed. “I’m not sure it’s the healthiest, but I think it’s the best.”
Read on for more Thanksgiving talk from some of the American-born guys…
What are your Thanksgiving traditions?
NISKANEN: In the past, we would always have the whole family meet at Grandma’s house and have the turkey, the whole nine yards. Stuffing, all that good stuff. Since my NHL career started, that’s kind of been put to the side. I try not to eat turkey the day before a game. We usually play the day after Thanksgiving, so recently we’ve been having prime rib, actually. Kind of a mid-day big lunch and that’s been a nice little touch.
VITALE: Nowadays, my wife makes the meal and everything. She’ll kind of vary up the menu, but she always does this cornbread stuffing every year which is my all-time favorite. So I go to town on that. Growing up, my family was Italian so we always had pasta and meatballs. That was kind of our turkey.
Did your friends wonder why you didn’t eat turkey? Yeah, I had one of my friends over one year, I think I was in sixth or seventh grade and we had just a huge serving bowl of pasta and meatballs. He didn’t really fill up on the pasta, he was waiting for the turkey. And we just kind of cleaned up and that was it. It was definitely a little different that we had that. And also my nonnie and my grandpa, he was from Italy and we’d always have pasta and then we’d play the Godfather on Thanksgiving and on Christmas Eve. So the Godfather would be going on in the background and we had little nieces and nephews and kids running around. So it was interesting, but it was special I guess.
ZATKOFF: Being from Michigan, obviously football was always the big thing with the Lions. We would always start off with the Lions-Cowboys on TV. We’d always go over to be with my dad’s side of the family and usually catch both of the football games and just sit around, eat, play some football later on. Pretty standard, I’m sure what a lot of families do.
If you could put together your ultimate Thanksgiving meal, what would it compose?
NISKANEN: All the traditional stuff, I think. I like turkey. Stuffing is really, really good. I’m a big fan of that. Cranberries, mashed potatoes – put gravy on anything. Probably not the best for an athlete, but that one day of year was pretty good.
VITALE: Definitely my wife’s cornbread stuffing. Tyler Florence’s turkey, he does this turkey where he puts bacon over it and it’s one of the greatest things ever. Pumpkin pie. My dad’s spaghetti and meatballs, and then a bottle of wine and I’m good to go. I’m sleeping like a baby that night.
ZATKOFF: Stuffing is my favorite. Second (favorite) would be cranberries with the turkey. (My perfect plate) would just be those three things. I’m not a huge mixer. It’s okay if they slightly touch, but I like to keep space on my plate.
Apple or pumpkin pie? NISKANEN: I like pumpkin. I do like apple too, but I’d say pumpkin gets the edge.
VITALE: Pumpkin, for sure. Hands down. We have pumpkin pie all year long. My wife will surprise me with it every now and then. She’ll bring one home and we’ll put it in the microwave for a bit and put some whipped cream on top, and hoo, is it good.
ZATKOFF: Pumpkin pie.
What are you most thankful for this year?
NISKANEN: I think health, for my family and myself. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career and life that I haven’t had many serious injuries or illness, so I’m really thankful for that.
VITALE: My family, first and foremost. My wife is just awesome and being on the road so much, she takes such good care of both our children. I have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old, a boy and a girl. Just their health and their happiness is all I really care about, so that’s obviously the thing I’m most thankful for. ZATKOFF: I think just my family. Everyone’s been so supportive of me, just from my time that I started playing until now. And I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity, so obviously thankful for that. But just everyone that’s always believed in me and supported me through the years.