Wednesday, May 15, 2024

From the Magazine: All in La Famiglia

When it comes to celebrating Christmas, the Gismondis think big. They have to, with 24 family members (and one on the way). Longtime owners of Arturo’s, arguably the first fine restaurant in Boca Raton when it opened in 1983, the Gismondis moved here from New York in 1991 to help run the family business. At the time, it was Vincent and Rosaria, and five daughters, the youngest three months old. Today, that number has grown to many times that, with husbands and grandkids, not to mention mothers-in-law and assorted extended family members.

We talked to Vincent and Rosaria and two of their daughters on a rainy day in the cozy alcove bar at Arturo’s about how their family celebrates Christmas; daughters Giulia and Elisa, Arturo’s pastry chef, talked about the holiday, from panettone to pajamas—and more.


Dishes from Arturo’s; photo by Aaron Bristol

Arturo’s does it up for Christmas, and nothing looks better at this white-linen fine Italian restaurant than the 80 poinsettias placed everywhere, the festive window wreaths, and Elisa’s baskets of her line of liquores paired with baked goods.

Arturo’s set the standard for fine dining in Boca when the Gismondi family launched it in 1983. The Gismondi family, led by late patriarch Arturo Gismondi, hails from Sora, Italy, and opened its first restaurant in the states in Queens in 1957, establishing Arturo’s in Boca Raton decades later. Now, it’s become an institution in Boca and is known for its soft tinkling piano, its garden room, its impressive wine cellar and its black-jacket-and-tie waiters, all an homage to a white-glove dining standard that is rare these days—but a delightful change from the trendy (and loud) pricy “fine dining” go-tos that crowd the market now.

Do not miss the elegant torta primavera cart, the seafood antipasto, the fresh pastas—but you can’t go wrong with anything here. At Christmas, Arturo’s menu includes baccalà, a traditional codfish dish only made at Christmas. “It’s a tradition all over Italy,” Rosaria says, “but every region makes it a little differently. We do more of a stew with tomato sauce and peppers.”

And bakery chef Elisa Gismondi Tufano will also be showcasing her line of liquores from Tufano Liquore Company. “My husband and I are the founders of Elisa’s Creamoncello. We have three flavors: lemon, coconut and cappuccino,” she says. “These creamy liquores are enjoyed chilled or mixed into other cocktails. I also use them in dessert recipes.”

Elisa’s liquores

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What about Christmas Eve?

There is very little Christmas Eve, as it turns out, for the Gismondis, as Arturo’s is always packed that night. Rosaria says that evening is celebrated at one of the daughters’ houses, and the whole-family holiday really starts Christmas day (if you don’t count the late-night ritual of stuffing presents under the tree after the kids go to bed).

I asked about the seven fishes tradition, where many Italians prepare feasts using seven different fishes on Christmas Eve, but it’s not something the Gismondis really do, although Vincent has a theory about why Catholics choose fish on holidays.

“Do you know the real story of why in Christianity we eat fish at Christmas?” he says, his eyes twinkling. “St. Peter had a brother and he was a fisherman. And business was very slow because most of the Romans ate meat all the time. So he tried to help his brother, and he said we’ll make a day, Christmas, to eat only seafood.”

He says it was “hearsay” of course, as his daughter Giulia rolls her eyes.

From left, at a past Christmas, Dante Distelhurst, Daniela Tufano, Olivia Merklein, Anthony Palmieri, Gina Merklein, Rocco Gisonda, Luca Palmieri, Cristian Palmieri

Gift giving

Buying gifts for upward of 20 family members is not for the faint of heart. Although Rosaria depends on the individual daughters to give her lists, she does all the shopping like a warrior in a two-day spree that might be perilously close to Christmas. But she does it.

“I always give a special gift [to the family] that will be the surprise. Many times I give tickets to see a show or a big game, trips to Italy—one big thing for the whole family, a small gift for every one. I make a list and do it the week before, and go two days and buy everything…”

One of the tasks is hiding all those gifts from the children.

“We hide all the gifts beforehand. We have to put them out Christmas Eve night when the children are all in bed, so when they wake up on Christmas they see all the gifts. The little ones still believe in Santa, so hiding all the gifts is a challenge—you have to lock the doors.”

Décor and tradition

Every year, the family decides on a general theme for the dining table decor and the pajamas (more about that later). One year, it might be a plaid motif, another a black-and-white checkered look. But it’s always a thing, and it is meticulously carried out.

Not to mention the tree

Dante Distelhurst under a Gismondi tree from years past

“Every year the girls want to make sure we do the same thing, because they want their kids to grow up the same way they grew up. So there are no changes,” Rosaria says. “You have to have the biggest Christmas tree—and it has to be real. At least a 12-footer—and now that they are moved into their own homes when they come “home” [to us], they still expect to have the tallest tree.”

These days, the years of trudging from tree lot to tree lot to find the perfect tree are over. The Gismondis have a friend, who is a customer, who owns a Christmas tree farm in North Carolina, and they have the perfect tree delivered.

“I usually decorate the tree soon after Thanksgiving. … We have to wait for a few days before the branches open up, give it lots of water so the tree is hydrated, and then the biggest challenge is putting the lights on the tree,” she says. “So we always get Giulia and Mark, her husband—because he’s the tallest—to help.”

Vincent adds that they sometimes “get a broom, attach a barbecue fork to it so it’s longer to put all the lights on. It’s pretty funny.”

Giulia says they have so far “survived every year.”

The Family

The Vincent and Rosaria Gismondi families are:

Rosaria and daughters, from left, Elisa, Sabrina and Giulia; photo by Jason Nuttle
Enzo and Elisa Tufano. Alessandro Tufano (16) and Daniela Tufano (12); photo by Jason Nuttle
Mark and Giulia Merklein, Gina Merklein (13) and Olivia Merklein (11); photo by Jason Nuttle
Eric and Sabrina Distelhurst, Dante (3) and Alessia (2); photo by Jason Nuttle

Stephen and Claudia Palmieri, Anthony (10), Luca (8), Cristian (5) and Sofia (9 months) (Not pictured)

Michael and Roberta Gisonda Rocco (4) and Michela (2) (Not pictured)

The food

The meat and cheese board

There’s a reason the Gismondi family wears pre-ordered matching pajamas every Christmas. Dinner is no match for shirts that are tucked, pants that zip, belts that are buckled. After the family attends Mass first thing Christmas morning, regular clothes are banished and everyone changes into the pair of pajamas that is issued to them (that reflect the theme that year) to wear for the duration.

First up is an elaborate charcuterie platter (assembled the day before) and Champagne to hold everyone over while the gift opening begins.

“I have pajamas for everybody, and everybody is thrilled, because they can just relax … and then the feast begins …” says Rosaria.

Vincent, who is the undisputed chef in the family, describes the menu.

“Once we sit down, we’re going to have the lasagna [Vincent’s mother’s recipe] that is traditional, going back many years. And then we’re going to have a stuffed turkey for tradition, but we’re also going to have a whole filet mignon with roasted potatoes and mushroom gravy; it’s got to be brown gravy. And we have rapini.”

Rosaria says, “All the girls have their favorites. Some of the girls like mashed potatoes, so we have to have those.”

Giulia adds, “And sweet potatoes as well and creamed spinach; my mother-in-law usually brings something like that.”

Sfogliatelle and ciambelline al vino rosso are traditional pastries Elisa makes for Christmas; photo by Aaron Bristol

Vincent also selects the wine from Arturo’s impressive 1,200-bottle cellar (which wins awards every year from Wine Spectator magazine), maybe a “Carlos Savina Barolo or an Amarone,” he says.

For dessert, there are roasted chestnuts, store-bought panettone and pandoro, a selection of Elisa’s pastries like torta di fragole, Sfogliatelle, ciambelline al vino rosso and a “typical holiday cake from my husband’s region, which is called pastiera Napoletana,” says Elisa.

Christmas dinner is a group effort, the girls say. Rosaria says the girls are “pretty much in charge,” but she and Giulia usually plan the décor (but Sabrina and Claudia also weigh in), Elisa is in charge of desserts and Vincent is the man with the menu. The family dining table seats only 16, so two children’s tables are set up in an adjacent room.

“The real challenge,” Vincent says, “is to make sure we have enough wine.”

By the end of the prolonged dinner, Rosaria says “the kids are still wild,” and the whole family sits down to play tombola or Italian bingo. “For money,” Elisa adds. The children call the numbers—and they have to be in Italian.

Giulia and Elisa say it’s another longtime tradition. “We used to play this even when we were little with our grandparents and our grandparents’ friends. It’s a tradition we try to pass on.”

Torta di Fragole (strawberry shortcake); photo by Aaron Bristol

And there are many, many calls to Italy that night, to in-laws and aunts and uncles, usually FaceTimed so everyone can see what everyone else has on their Christmas tables.

It’s a natural finish to a big day, with deep roots in Italian traditions, and to those the Gismondis try to keep alive over the generations. Giulia and her sisters are carrying on the family’s holiday magic, and she can recall one of her favorite memories from childhood.

“When we were younger, my grandfather from Italy would wake us up playing ‘Jingle Bells’ on the piano,” she says.

This article is from the November/December 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Marie Speed
Marie Speed
Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.

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