Red gravy traditionalists, innovators vie in S. Phila. cook-off

Neighborhood residents Alec Stewart (left) and Cornelius Fiddlebone sample the eight gravy entries that were judge in a blind tasting. The winner was a lamb ragu created by a Collingswood woman.

Purists might view what happened Sunday evening in the cafeteria of SS. Neumann and Goretti High School as a minor act of blasphemy.

Eight contestants competed in a blind taste testing of their best recipe for red gravy - that hearty, tomato-based Italian staple poured over pasta, refined through generations of Sunday suppers and better known to the world outside South Philadelphia simply as "sauce."

But when it came time to reveal the winner, the judges' pick was not a dish developed somewhere south of Washington Avenue in the kitchen of an Italian nonna. Instead, the victorious chef revealed she had perfected her soulful lamb ragu while living in, of all places, Miami.

"I was missing my mom's Bolognese," said 32-year-old Vanessa Crupi, who has since moved to Collingswood. "I was fairly poor, and these lamb parts weren't that expensive. It's now become our family tradition."

Despite its unusual point of origin, her gravy tasted as if it had sprung from the neighborhood tradition that the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association, organizers of the second annual Red Gravy Cook-off, had hoped to highlight.

Joseph F. Marino, the civic association's cochair, said he used to look forward to Sundays as a child, when walking to church meant passing through streets where the whiff of gravy simmering on the stove top seemed to waft from every window.

These days, the trek is just as likely to be filled with the smells of more international cuisines as East Passyunk Avenue has become one of the city's hottest restaurant spots.

Nearly every one of the eight chefs competing Sunday had strong opinions on what makes a classic gravy.

Meat is a must, many said. Some insisted on slow, painstaking preparation.

Others, meanwhile, said they preferred a quick cook but at least a day in the refrigerator to let the flavors develop.

"You start with pork bones seared in the bottom of the pan before you start the sauce," said Marino. "To me, it just draws out the robustness."

Social worker Nicole Sansini, a self-styled "gravy snob," had definite thoughts on what has no place in any traditional recipe.

"Some people put sugar in it," she said in disbelief, before quietly revealing the secret to her sauce: tomato puree instead of fresh tomatoes.

The origins of Mark Simone's entry - a vegan option that he described as simply "garlic, tomatoes, a little basil: a classic marinara" - might have given the meat-based purists pause.

"My mom isn't Italian. I don't have a family recipe," he said, offering later that his day job is as a cook in a South Jersey Mexican restaurant.

Nonetheless, his recipe delighted at least one of the judges, vegetarian Joseph Myers, editor of the South Philly Review.

Of the rest, Myers jokingly said: "Had they been courageous and stuck some chicken or seafood in there, instead, I might have given them a taste. But they all stuck to veal, pork and beef. Traditionalists."

Few in attendance would venture why local Italian Americans long ago adopted a word to describe something that the rest of America better associates with the brown stuff poured over a Thanksgiving turkey.

Maria M. Chiavatti, owner of Passyunk staple restaurant Mamma Maria's and provider of the pasta served under all of Sunday's samples, met the question with a shrug.

"For me it's sauce, but people around here call it gravy," she said. "So long as they're cooking, it's all good. As long as they make it themselves, that's what makes it good."