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Have a Roman holiday at home with festive brunch

Chef of Austin trattoria Sagra designs a feast for home cooks to make.

Becca Hensley
Butternut Squash Lasagna: Instead of the traditional red-sauce lasagna, spice up the noodles and ricotta cheese with butternut squash.

A meal in Italy can last six hours, if not more. Families and friends gather for long afternoons or evenings centered around food and camaraderie. They nibble, laugh, lounge and imbibe as time ticks away.

That reverence for comestibles and fraternity is the idea behind Gabriel Pellegrini's downtown Italian trattoria, Sagra. "When I was growing up, Sunday meals at my Nana's house were an all-day affair," he says. He remembers how she would awaken early while the family slept to create dishes for a meal that began at noon and lasted until way beyond sunset.

Recipes would run the gamut from breakfast specialties to Pellegrini's personal favorite, "my Nana's baked ziti" - the best part was the crunchy cheese sneaked from the top of the cooling dish when nobody was looking.

Brothers, sisters and cousins all gathered to eat and share the day. "For us, family is everything, and I wanted to bring this sense of community to Austin," said the native Texan, who opened Sagra a few years ago after owning and presiding over kitchens in some of New York's most storied eateries.

Located in a historic house on San Antonio Street, Sagra evokes warmth and affability. Inside, the nurturing continues with Pellegrini's interpretations of Old World classics. He offers wood-fired pizzas, handcrafted mozzarella made daily, house-cured meats and homemade pastas. Food is locally sourced when possible, bread baked on the premises and items, in the case of goodies like prosciutto di Parma, imported from Italy.

The name of this rustic ristorante also suggests merriment and togetherness. In Italy, a sagra is a community festival, a jubilation of local food. Sometimes it proclaims the seasonal harvest - say, truffles or asparagus; other times, it's all about something well-loved and well-known like lasagna or regional wine.

Once a season, Pellegrini and his wife, Sarwat, throw their own "sagra." They invite their customers to partake of an Italian-style food fête - all for free (desserts and beverages excluded). "We pick a local ingredient and design an entire menu around it," he said. Past sagras have centered around lavender and fennel.

In honor of the holidays, Pellegrini designed an easy and elegant brunch for the home cook. Though it's true that Italians take a light breakfast, the second meal of the day can be a multicourse marathon. Brunch might not be a truly Italian concept, but a meal that lasts all day - that's Italian.

So, invite a crowd. As Pellegrini says, "The more the merrier - and they can always help you cook."

The recipes were designed to be made ahead of time and to stay warm for hours so hosts can enjoy their company. Serve this festive meal as a buffet or in courses with the chef's suggested wine pairings.

Buone feste! You'll have your guests wishing one another a "nuovo anno felice" between mouthfuls.

Christmas Morning Strata

Serves 8

Nonstick cooking spray

2 Tbsps butter or margarine

1 large onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups roasted red pepper

8 oz. cooked spinach

6 large eggs

1 1/4 cups milk or cream

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

2 lbs Italian sausage

4 slices Italian bread, cubed

2 1/2 cups shredded Fontina

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. In large skillet, heat butter over medium-high heat until melted. Cook and stir onion and garlic 1 to 2 minutes or until onions are tender. Add roasted peppers and spinach; remove from heat and set aside. In medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Combine all ingredients and add the sausage, bread and 11/2 cup of Fontina and pour into baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake 1 hour or until eggs are set. Remove foil; top with remaining 1 cup cheese. Bake until top is golden.

Panettone French Toast

Serves 8

4 eggs

2 cups heavy cream

1 pinch salt

3/4 cup sugar

1 Tbsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp nutmeg

8 pieces of day-old panettone

1 Tbsp butter

4 pears, peeled, cored and sliced

1/4 cup brown sugar

Scramble eggs. Add cream, salt, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to eggs. Mix well. Dip sliced pannetone into egg mixture, allowing to soak for about 1 minute. Place large griddle over medium heat. Add half the butter; when melted, add the soaked panettone. Flipping only once, brown toast on both sides. Set aside on serving platter. In a small sauté pan, melt remaining butter; add pears and brown sugar. When pears are tender, pour over French toast.

Butternut Squash Lasagna

Serves eight

1 lb lasagne pasta

4 Tbsps butter

1 large onion, diced

4 small butternut squash, roasted, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup flour

3 cups milk

1 cup ricotta cheese

2 eggs

1/2 tsp pepper

1 tsp salt

2 cups fresh mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese - reserved for the top

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook pasta in large pot of lightly salted water. Melt butter in large saucepan over low heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add butternut squash. Cook the vegetables over low heat until very soft. Stir in flour. Gradually stir in the milk and ricotta until the mixture is smooth. Allow the mixture to cool slightly and add eggs, salt and pepper.

In a 9-inch-by-13-inch dish, spread a little of the butternut squash over the bottom, cover with cooked pasta and place mozzarella over pasta. Continue to layer with squash, pasta and mozzarella, ending with a layer of squash. Sprinkle top with Parmesan and walnuts. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes until nicely browned and heated through.

Turkey Rollatini

Serves 8

1 onion

2 stalks celery

2 Tbsps butter

1/2 lb. dried bread cubes

1 Tbsp sage

2 eggs

1 cup chicken stock

8 oz. chestnuts, roasted and shelled

1 turkey breast, 2-3 lb

2 cups pomegranate juice

1 cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375. To prepare the stuffing, sauté the diced onion and celery in butter until translucent. Mix in bread cubes, sage, eggs, chicken stock and chestnuts. Allow to cool.

Leaving skin on, carefully butterfly turkey breast. Starting at the thinner side of the breast, slowly slice into a single 1-inch-thick piece. Evenly spread stuffing on top of turkey breast. Stuffing should be about half an inch thick. Starting on the side without the skin, carefully roll turkey into a spiral shape, leaving the skin on the outside. Tie turkey with butcher's twine, as you would a roast. Place the turkey in a roasting pan. Roast at 375 for about 2 hours, bringing the turkey to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Combine pomegranate juice, olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper. Baste the turkey often with this mixture during cooking. If the turkey begins to over-brown, cover it loosely with aluminum foil.

Broccoli Rabe with garlic, raisins and fennel

Serves 8

1 bunch broccoli rabe, blanched

1 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/4 cup raisins

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsps. fennel seeds

In a large skillet, sauté broccoli rabe in butter and oil 3 to 4 minutes. Add raisins, garlic and fennel seed. Sauté 2 to 3 minutes until garlic is golden.

Struffoli

Serves 8

Pastry dough

3 cups flour

4 eggs

1 tsp whiskey

1 tsp butter

1 Tbsp sugar

Oil for frying

Honey Glaze

3/4 lb. honey

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

2 oz. candied cherries

2 oz. candied orange peel

2 oz. candied citron

In food processor, combine the pastry dough ingredients to make a workable dough. Remove from food processor. Knead the dough well; let sit 1 hour, covered. Pull off small pieces of the dough and roll in your fingers to form small balls. Fry the pieces a few at a time in hot oil until brown, and drain them on absorbent paper.

In a small pot, combine the honey, sugar and water. Bring to a boil and allow mixture to reduce slightly. Reduce heat. Add fried struffoli and diced candied fruit. Stir well and evenly, coating all pieces. Place on a large greased plate. While still warm, form the mixture into a wreath, leaving a hole in the center. Allow to cool.

Menu and wine pairings

Christmas Morning Strata

Pour: Mimosa with Prima Perla Prosecco and fresh orange juice

Panettone French Toast

Pour: Mariposa Braschetto

Butternut Squash Lasagna

Pour: La Vis Pinot Noir

Turkey Rollatini and Broccoli Rabe

Pour: Poderi Elia Dolcetto

Struffoli (traditional Italian pastry)

Pour: La Duca Lambrusco