Peter Picataggio’s mother always ran out for butter, or half and half, or some forgotten essential on Thanksgiving. Then, much to her family’s chagrin, she’d show up with a person they didn’t know, usually homeless, to share the meal.
“This year, I just bought a new home in Sayville and at Thanksgiving, my mother says, ‘we should get a straggler,’” said Picataggio, laughing. “I’m 45 years old and she still wants to pick up someone we don’t know. I said, ‘mom, we’ll make the best of it.’”
Picataggio, whose mom, Roberta Aquiar, set the stage for his altruism, is celebrating the 10th year of Home for the Holidays, a nonprofit, volunteer-driven effort that offers a free white-tablecloth Christmas Day meal with menus and waitress service for those who need one. This is the fifth year it will be held at the United Methodist Church of Christ on South Ocean Avenue in Patchogue, from 12:30-3:30 p.m.
A massage therapist who travels with actress and singer Jennifer Lopez 315 days a year, Picataggio attended Patchogue-Medford schools. He owns Massage RX in Sayville, with his mom and wife Adriene at the helm. “Entourage” star and fellow Patchoguean Kevin Connolly is a friend, who has helped cook and dole out the food.
The idea started as Eileen’s Home for the Holidays — in honor of Connolly’s mom — five friends who brought Christmas Day meals to vets, homeless, homebound and Section 8 residents in Harlem because Meals on Wheels doesn’t deliver on Christmas Day. The following year they added Bronxville.
“It was Kevin’s idea. His mom was ill and it fed his soul,” Picataggio said. Then the need got bigger, from 40 their first year to 250. The thought was, make it local. They brought it to Lindenhurst and then Patchogue five years ago.
This year’s planning has been a challenge; some volunteers and restaurants dropped out, but Picataggio is pushing through.
“Kevin [Connolly] is doing a movie and may fly in for a day, but it’s not definite yet,” said Picataggio. “One of the cooks can’t come. If there was ever a year to not do it, this would be the year.”
His group transports the donated Wenner Bread Products at Thanksgiving to United Methodist Church, which offers a turkey dinner with the fixings, and hands out flyers about the Christmas event. “As soon as we walk in, the people they are serving light up because they know Christmas Day we’ll be there,” he said. “The phone calls start coming in for reservations.”
The volunteers who step up tally about 50; it dropped down to 30 this year, but then bumped up again when others committed. And so did restaurant owners, who filled in the vacated food donation slots from Bellport to Oakdale.
Things happen, he said, but you stay the course and the event magically evolves. The momentum, devising a menu, funding, getting restaurants, a coat drive, volunteers and donated gifts on board starts at Thanksgiving.
While the restaurants donate 100 trays of food, incidentals like the linens, soda etc., have to be purchased. The tab is a bit over $5,000, but a GoFundMe account attracts what’s needed.
“I work crazy hours, but any time I think I can’t do it, there’s this thought, ‘no, man, you can do it,’” Picataggio said.
“Patchogue has a serious homeless problem. Last year, it was 450 meals out the door. I don’t think people realize it. You see the restaurants on Main Street and how the village is flourishing and that’s good. You can be charmed by what’s happening, but behind the buildings there’s an abundance of people in need in this village. They can’t buy toys or go out and have a Christmas dinner. Remember, we’re not Teflon and can be in these positions one day.”
United Methodist Church of Patchogue Pastor Chuck Ferrara said that houses of worship and nonprofit organizations are keeping the homeless and poor afloat; the need, he said, has gotten overwhelming.
“I don’t think the homeless would survive if it wasn’t for the meals and clothing from the local houses of worship and groups like Peter’s,” Ferrara said. “For our regular outreach, we offer a homemade Wesleyan meal the last Thursday of every month, and every Tuesday we have a food pantry and a clothing closet open. We have a full Thanksgiving and those are the ongoing projects. We help thousands each year.”
Anyone who’s attended Picataggio’s events will tell you they are festive.
The mood is kind, with volunteers from all over, many of whom give up a meal with their own families. White tablecloths, real cutlery and decorations add an elegant touch to the church’s dining hall. Diners are friendly; they have a choice of three menus: a traditional American one with turkey, a Latin array with empanadas, and Italian entrees. A waiter or waitress takes their order. A posse of people in the church’s kitchen cooks up a storm.
There’s a boutique area for coats and functional clothing is available, like socks, jeans and sweatshirts for those who come.
“We create a little Toyland,” Picataggio said. “A child picks a toy and sits with Santa.”
Picataggio was back on the road several hours after the Advance interview and would return on Dec. 23. After the event, the area is cleaned and his friends and volunteers come back the following day with a U-Haul truck.
One of the longtime volunteers is municipal finance lawyer Chris Reitzel, who grew up in Canaan Lake and now lives in Bellport; his whole family has pitched in with the Christmas event. “My daughter is 12, my son is 10. In the beginning we’d wrap up candy and fruit,” he said. “After Hurricane Sandy, Peter and Kevin did their first pop-up restaurant in Lindenhurst and after that they moved it over to the Methodist church. As a family, it’s such a gift Peter and Kevin have given us for us to give back. My daughter won a school pay-it-forward essay contest last year and the whole essay was about how she gets to do this.”
The Reitzel family helps set the tables, organize the room for Santa and the gifts and clothes a couple of days before. They drive over early to the historic church on Christmas morning. Reitzel and his son pour the soft drinks; his wife and daughter serve the food.
“Our kids see lots of examples of people loving their family and friends,” Reitzel said thoughtfully. “It’s easy to find that. But for my wife and I, this is a loving-your-neighbor, which is sometimes harder to find.”
New unwrapped toys and new or gently used coats can be donated and dropped off at MassageRX, 160 Main Street, Suite 101, Sayville, New York 11782. To volunteer or make a reservation for Christmas Dinner, call 631-636-1980, visit eileenshome.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.