The first time they made spaghetti and crab gravy together, the discussion got heated.
“What are you doing?!” Angela Ranalli said to Joe Cicala, who is now her husband, as he went for the distinctive yellow-and-blue container of Old Bay spice. “We don’t put Old Bay in there.”
“Yes, we do,” said Cicala, then the chef at Le Virtù, who, being from Maryland, assumed he was the crab expert in the house. “This is how we do it.”
At the Cicala family’s summer home near Ocean City, Md., crab spaghetti was always the day-after feast made from the cooked leftovers of crustaceans steamed with vinegar, beer, and Old Bay.
“Well, I grew up in South Jersey and this is not how you do it,” said Angela, who spoke with authority as the fourth-generation descendant of crab gravy-making Abruzzese immigrants. Along with her mom, Linda DiLuzio, they fed that specialty to hundreds of Shoregoers nightly at the restaurant they ran for over a decade at the Elks Lodge in Wildwood, DiLuzio’s Fine Dining. “You have to take the crabs live, rip their backs off, clean them, collect the juices, and sauté them raw.”
She recalled how Joe’s family was aghast the first time they saw her prepping live crabs for a family meal: “They looked at me like I was an animal. But no, Old Bay does not go into crabs and spaghetti. This is an argument we have every time.”
It’s an argument that’s continued throughout their marriage, he says, and Joe lost (once again) this summer when Angela had her annual summer craving for crab gravy and they decided to put it on the menu at their restaurant, Cicala at the Divine Lorraine. Joe ceded his territorial instincts to feature his own family’s tradition for Angela’s because “it should be in the Philadelphia style,” and the briny depth of a sauce cooked with raw seafood is ultimately closer to the flavors of true Italian cooking, served over Cicala’s toothy strands of square-cut chitarra pasta.
The relatively straightforward recipe, with crabs sautéed in garlic and oil then simmered in San Marzano tomatoes, descends from Angela’s great-grandmother, Maria Palestini, who immigrated to West Philadelphia in 1910 from the Abruzze coastal town of Giulianova.
Of course, blue crabs are not native to Europe’s coast. But there are a number of similar tomato-based seafood stews along the Italian coast, such as brodetto or cacciucco, and these recipes were simply adapted by immigrants in the spirit of their culinary traditions to a bountiful new seaside landscape.
“If Philadelphia was a province of Southern Italy,” he said, “this is how would they handle these indigenous ingredients.”
But over the last century of Italian American cooking, crab gravy has evolved into a distinctive Philadelphia-South Jersey summer ritual, an obsession-worthy subgenre of Mid-Atlantic regional cooking. And there are as many variations as there are Sunday gravy pots across the region, with seafood stepping in for a lighter summer cameo where the meatballs, braciola, and sausage would normally star.
“Every Italian American family in my neighborhood made a version of it,” says chef Joey Baldino, who grew up near East Passyunk eating both red and white versions of the dish. “And, of course, nothing compares to my mom’s.”
Baldino’s rendition at Palizzi Social Club remains, in my mind, the pinnacle of the genre, a crimson-orange glaze of sauce so deep with tidal magnetism, tomato swagger, and family history, dating to the club’s 103-year-old roots, that I named it my dish of the year in 2017.
Last year’s publication of Baldino’s cookbook with Adam Erace, Dinner At the Club (Running Press, 2019), revealed much of the details that go into building the layers of flavor that give it impact, from the touch of anchovy and tomato paste at its base (”it gives tang and richness,” says Baldino, who prefers the Fontanella brand), to a flicker of chile de arbol heat, splashes of wine and brandy, clam juice, and the laborious process of pressing all stewed remains though a conical sieve. And then there’s the garnish of lump crab, which Baldino boosts with a brief marinade in olive oil with garlic, parsley, and dried oregano before scattering over top.
“This is the time that people should be making this,” he says, noting that local blue crabs are in their prime from spring through fall. “I liked cooking the medium-sized females with roe, because the males are sometimes not as sweet.”
Palizzi, which has been on hiatus for much of the pandemic, will begin serving crab gravy again on its full menu at the members-only pop-ups this week at a secret garden location in Center City. But the version Cicala is cooking at the Divine Lorraine is also worthy, considering it’s far more accessible to the public, and that snappy, handmade pasta lends it a next-level touch. It will anchor the restaurant’s special six-course Maryland blue crab Sagra feast on Aug. 2.
These rarefied versions, though, are hardly the only good crab gravy out there. Stogie Joe’s Tavern (1801 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-463-3030) has long made one of the best. It’s a year-round staple on the menu (also available for takeout by the pint), which chef-owner Kristian Leuzzi simmers for six hours with mirepoix pushed through a tamis sieve and finished with butter, followed by another finishing dose of fresh tomato sauce. Stogie Joe’s only accepts cash, however (not even Venmo or personal check), which I’ve been avoiding during the pandemic.
Little Nonna’s has, at times, made a knockout crab gravy, though it’s not on the current menu. The Bomb-Bomb (1026 Wolf St., 215-463-1311) is a South Philly classic that sells plenty of crab gravy pasta to go with its ribs. But I’d just as likely go for the spicy crab arrabiata at Trattoria Carina (2201 Spruce St., 215-732-5818), where the dish gets a boost from house-extruded shell pasta. And I can’t wait until Friday Saturday Sunday (261 S. 21st St., 215-546-4232), which recently reopened for weekend takeout, eventually reprises its coveted crab pasta, which adds a funky riff on the style with the addition of smoked herring that adds an unexpectedly subtle and dusky tidal punch to the sauce.
Samuel and Sons, whose now-closed Ippolito’s retail market at 13th and Dickinson used to provide many of South Philly’s households with crab, plans to reprise its own crab gravy tradition soon at the new retail outlet called Giuseppe’s Market attached to its plant at Packer Avenue and South Lawrence. You can still buy crabs at Giuseppe’s. But from Aug. 10 to 21, they’ll also be selling a five-pound tub of gravy already cooked for six hours with three waves of crab (slow-stewed, sautéed then simmered toward the end, then finished with lump) along with two pounds of pasta for $19.99.
“This is definitely not a social-distancing meal,” says Samuel’s co-owner Anthony D’Angelo. “It’s a very intimate meal with a lot of dirty hands.”
Anastasi Seafood in the Italian Market also remains an excellent place to buy lively fresh crabs, currently running $15 to $20 per dozen for medium-sized females. But an excellent alternative steeped in tradition, if you don’t plan to make it yourself at home, is to pick up a jar of crab gravy from Iannelli’s Brick Oven Bakery, where Vincent Iannelli makes the gravy just like his nonna Mirna Iannelli taught him.
“We had a Shore house down in Ventnor and every weekend my grandmom, who was from near Rome, would come to the beach on Sundays and say, ‘Che ditto, Vince? You say you want a crab macaroni tonight?‘ And so every Sunday, me and my sister Vienna would be elbow deep in crabs, tearing it up.”
The 110-year-old bakery, which Vincent’s side of the family bought from an uncle in 1965, is rightfully famous for its tomato pie — as well as its eccentric, unpredictable hours due to Vincent’s primary job in real estate: “I open when I feel like it,” he says, “maybe 20 days a year.”
But he cooks crab gravy year-round and sells 32 oz. jars of the sauce online. Iannelli’s gravy is distinctive because he free-dives for almost all his own crabs while spearfishing during the summer weekends in Longport.
“Sometimes I’ll hit the drift at high tide and there’s so many crabs it’s like picking blueberries,” he said.
Afterward, Iannelli puts the crabs in the freezer for a few minutes to make the crabs lethargic, then cleans them out and drops them raw into a simmering pot of tomato sauce. He uses the same deeply sweet and tangy base for the tomato pies, made with sunny California Stanislaus tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano.
Iannelli’s sauce gets compliments from one of the neighborhood’s ultimate crab gravy masters.
“It’s super crabby, has a little kick, and you can also taste the tomatoes, too,” says Joey Baldino. “It even reminded me a little bit of my mom’s.”