The most popular dishes on the menu at the Palizzi Social Club are quintessentially South Philly: the escarole and beans, the stuffed artichokes, and definitely this pasta, paired with whole blue crustaceans slowly simmered in marinara until they meld into the sauce colloquially called crab gravy. Crab gravy is the name of the sauce, but it’s also the name of the complete dish. Some families refer to it as crabs and macaroni, but to keep it clear to our members who didn’t grow up with it, we call it spaghetti and crabs.
This is a dish strongly associated with the hotter times of the year, when our usual Sunday gravy, hearty with meatballs, sausages, braciole, or braising cuts of beef and pork, takes a vacation in favor of this lighter seafood sauce. At the Club, we build the gravy with anchovies, brandy, and wine, additions you won’t find in most households’ recipes, but ones I think improve the overall flavor. Clam juice is another unusual ingredient in our crab gravy.
When buying crabs, live (and lively) is best. Frozen ones will work, too, but take longer to brown because of the moisture content. Blue crabs don’t have the huge deposits of meat of their West Coast relatives, so look for larger ones. Whomever you’re cooking for, you want them to have something they can get into. White shirts should be left at home.
Makes 1 ½ quarts (1420 ml)
4 tablespoons (59 ml) blended oil
5 large blue crabs (500 g), cleaned
4 teaspoon (20 g) salt, divided
20 cracks black pepper, divided
½ teaspoon dried oregano, divided
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
½ red onion, thinly sliced
½ yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh parsley
3 sprigs fresh basil
1 sprig fresh oregano
1 bay leaf
1 Arbol chile
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets (about .5 ounce/14 g)
56 oz. (1588 g) canned whole peeled tomatoes
¼ teaspoon granulated sugar (optional)
½ cup (125 ml) Chablis
¼ cup (50 ml) brandy
Heat the blended oil in large Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Season the crabs on both sides with half each of the salt, black pepper, and oregano. Slowly sear the crabs top shell side-down until they turn dark red, about 5 minutes. Flip and continue to sear for 5 minutes. Remove the top shells and reserve. Flip the crabs again, searing the insides until dark brown, about 6 minutes. Remove the browned crabs and reserve in a shallow dish. Discard the oil and allow the pot to cool for 5 minutes.
While the pot is cooling, combine the tomatoes, sugar (if needed), and remaining salt, pepper, and oregano in a medium bowl and crush the tomatoes as much as possible with your hands. Reserve at room temperature.
Wipe out the pot, removing any burned crab stuck to the bottom. Set the pot over low heat and add the olive oil, onion, garlic, herbs, and chile. Sweat until the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes. Make a space in the pot and add the tomato paste and anchovy. Cook for 5 minutes until the paste turns from bright red to copper. Return the crabs and reserved shells to the pot. Pour the wine into the dish that held the crabs, swishing around to collect any extra crab bits and juices, then add the wine to the pot. Reduce until almost dry, about 3 minutes. Add the brandy and simmer until alcohol has cooked off, about 5 minutes. Add the seasoned crushed tomatoes. Pour the clam juice into the tomato bowl and swish around to collect any leftover tomato. Add the mixture to the pot with 1 cup (250 ml) of water and lower the heat to maintain a slow simmer. Cook for 2 hours partially covered, gently stirring about every 10 minutes, then cool completely to room temperature.
When the sauce has cooled, remove the crabs. If needed, scrape out and discard the lungs. Scrape out any roe and other innards and add them to the sauce. Cut the crabs in half and reserve at room temperature.
Set a conical sieve over a clean pot. Working in batches, ladle the cooked sauce into the sieve, pressing as much into the clean pot as possible. Be sure to scrape down the outside of the sieve with a rubber spatula. . Discard the remaining solids. Stir the sauce well and reserve over low heat.
1 pound (454 g) dried spaghetti
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 pinch red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons (59 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons (28 g) unsalted butter
10 fresh basil leaves, torn
10 ounces (283 g) fresh lump crabmeat
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add the spaghetti and cook for 1 minute less than the time specified on the package directions.
Meanwhile, add the garlic, red pepper, and half the olive oil to a large sauté pan set over medium-low heat. Sweat the ingredients for 1 minute, then add the crab gravy. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer the sauce until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
Strain the spaghetti, reserving the pasta water. Add the spaghetti to the gravy with the remaining olive oil, the butter, basil, and crabmeat. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 2 minutes, tossing to combine. While the pasta is finishing cooking, return half of the pasta water to the pot and bring to a simmer. Warm the reserved cooked crabs in the simmering water. When warmed through, remove the crabs from the pot, shaking off the excess water, and arrange them on top of the plated spaghetti. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.