It's true that you didn't have to come from South Philadelphia or be an ethnic Italian to win Sunday's first-ever Red Gravy Cook-off, sponsored by the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association. But there's no doubt those qualities helped give contestants an edge.
South Philadelphia Italians were making and enjoying red gravy well before anyone came up with the name "East Passyunk Crossing" for the neighborhood around 10th and Morris. So, even if they do occasionally spike their gravies with a secret ingredient or two, they hold firm to the belief that "red gravy has to taste a certain way," explained Mark Squilla, the local councilman and South Philadelphia native who served as one of the competition judges.
The cook-off, attended by more than 80 people, brought a wide cross-section of East Passyunk residents to the cafeteria at Neumann Goretti High School to sample seven variations of the traditional gravy. There were newcomers sporting Buffalo plaid and significant facial hair, but also plenty folks who have eaten red gravy every Sunday of their lives.
And all had strong opinions.
"As far I'm concerned, my mother makes the best red gravy," said Joseph F. Marino, co-chair of the civic association. "But I am trying not to be biased since I'm a judge."
Marino, who lives in the house originally owned by his great-grandparents, remembers the days when he could smell the gravies wafting from every window as he walked to church on Sundays. Being an expert in the subject, he wore a red sweatshirt to the cook-off, "so that if I get splashed, it won't be noticed.
"Red gravy," for those who arrived in Philadelphia only yesterday, is the preferred term in these parts for the tomato-based preparation traditionally heaped on macaroni, or, if you insist, pasta. There will always be some disagreement about what constitutes a proper gravy, but longtime South Philadelphians will tell you that it is not to be confused with the brown stuff passed in a spouted cup on Thanksgiving.
Red gravy also needs to include meat, said Squilla, although the definition of meat can be stretched to include crab.
To make a good red gravy, many believe you need to start well in advance and not rush things. Contestant Sam Sherman, who runs the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corp., said he started his gravy Saturday by frying onion and garlic in oil. After throwing in some anchovies, pepper flakes, Parmesan rinds and roasted peppers, he let the gravy bubble on top of the stove until just before the 2 p.m. start of the cook-off.
Sherman does not have any Italian heritage, but he said he has an aunt who married an Italian. His contact paid off: He came in first in the popular vote.
As for the judges, they preferred the gravies that hewed closer to tradition.
The winning gravy maker was Carmela Molinari, a 72-year-old immigrant who still appends an extra "a" to her verbs and prepares massive quantities of red gravy every Sunday for a large extended family, most of them still in South Philadelphia. She said she didn't think much of the 12-hour gravies.
"I started at 9:30 this morning and finished at noon," said Molinari, waving her marinara-colored nails as she spoke. She followed the tried-and-true method of frying onions, then adding sausage to the pan. Her trick is to hold off on adding the meatballs until the liquid is rich with tomatoes.
The runner-up in the official judging, Anna Maria Vona, would beg to differ. She let her red gravy with crab bubble on the stove for 13 hours.
No one is really sure why Philadelphia Italians call tomato sauce gravy. Marino suspects immigrants spoke so many different dialects they chose the word as way to establish common ground.
Maybe because he grew up in South Jersey, contestant Matt Simone said he always called the concoction "sauce," despite his own Italian heritage. Since moving to East Passyunk, he decided to embrace the local nomenclature. But it hasn't been easy. "I still call it sauce sometimes," he confessed.