My glorious Citizens, it is a veritable fact that Philadelphia is the city of Brotherly Love – but do you realize where that monicker actually derives from? It comes from the name of the city itself, which is ancient Greek in origin! Yes, the name Philadelphia comes from the Greek words ‘phileo’, meaning love, and ‘adelphos’, meaning brother. Hence, “the City of Brotherly Love”! 😀
The famous dishes of this great city are legion, and we all know them by heart, right? Cheesesteak, pork and broccoli rabe sandwiches, soft pretzels, hoagies, snapper soup, spaghetti and crabs… – wait, you don’t KNOW about spaghetti and crabs?! Well, allow the Sagacious One to educate you, because this is a true taste of Philly’s Italian heritage, served almost only in homes, not restaurants!
Crabs and Italy have a long and distinguished history, going all the way back to ancient Rome, in fact! Crabs and crustaceans were considered a delicacy in ancient Rome. In particular, Apicius, a well known “foodie” of his day and age, described how to cook crustaceans in his famous book, De Re Coquinaria.
Legend has it that when he learned that there were extremely large shellfish living along the coast of Libya, he hired a boat and sailed there just to try them. Once he arrived and discovered that the local shellfish were almost identical to those found in Rome, he turned around and came back to Italy without even debarking! Truly a man after TFD‘s gustatory heart!
The Italian Roman Catholic feast of the Assumption on August 15th may have some connection with this recipe/meal in modern America, as it is traditionally enjoyed at the end of the Summer in not only Philadelphia, but the nearby regions of South Jersey and Maryland as well.
As to Philly’s Italian heritage – well it is profound indeed!
During the 18th Century Colonial Era of the United States, Italian migrants to Philadelphia came from higher-class backgrounds and were considered to be accomplished in business, art, and music. Many early Italian settlements appeared in South Philadelphia. Italian immigrants from this period predominantly originated from towns within Genoa Province, Liguria, including Genoa and Chiavari, while only a small number came from Veneto.
Donna J. Di Giacomo, author of Italians in Philadelphia, wrote that the first population was “in much smaller numbers” than the mass immigrant groups of the late 19th Century. At the time, many Americans had a positive view of classical culture and their view of Italian immigrants was more positive. Among the immigrants of this first period, Lorenzo Da Ponte, immigrated in 1804, will play a significant role in bringing Italian language and culture in the United States, as well as introducing Italian Opera in America.
In 1819, Silvio Pellico wrote in “Breve soggiorno in Milano di Battistino Barometro” that Italian immigrants were going to Philadelphia. Charles L. Flynn, Jr. of Assumption College stated in his book review of Building Little Italy that the Philadelphia Italian “community” didn’t actually form until the 1850s and 1860s, when it achieved enough size to do so. There were 117 Philadelphia residents known to have been born in Italy. By the 1870 census this increased to 517, with 82% of them living in South Philadelphia.
In the end of the 19th Century Italians immigrating to Philadelphia mainly came from peasant villages in the south of Italy and were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. During that era, most Italians came to the United States in order to make more money, but the vocational skills they had learned in Italy were not in high demand in the U.S. Immigrants in the later period originated from Abruzzo, Avellino and Salerno in Campania, and Messina in Sicily. The public had a more negative perception of the poorer Italians, especially as the media focused on crimes and bad behavior.
Eventually, the City came to embrace all of its Italian immigrants, and it was in the homes of the second wave that this dish has its genesis. As noted in a recent article on inquirer.com:
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.
The simplest versions of this recipe are made by home cooks and are basically just crabs simmered in tomato sauce for several hours and then the resultant oceanic bliss is served over spaghetti. Simple as that. On the other end of the spectrum is the epic version served at the legendary Palizzi Social Club private eatery – this of course is the basis for my recipe, and I have made only a few changes to this ne plus ultra version!
First, I added a lot more garlic – because I love garlic and who doesn’t?! Second, I added an optional touch of Asian fish sauce to deepen the seafood flavor and add umami – this is my preferred brand. Third, some freshly-ground fennel seed.
Lastly, in honor of the first wave of Italian immigrants to Philly from the North of Italy, I’ve added to the spaghetti some of the Northern Italian lemon/garlic/herb seasoning known as gremolata – this is optional but again I find it elevates the dish to new heights when used.
My Citizens, this is a classic dish of the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. that is guaranteed to convert you to the one true religion that is Italian-American cuisine – and now is the best time to enjoy this dish of dishes, as we wind down the Summer together in the giant dumpster fire known as 2020. Try and enjoy this with another Italian-American favorite of mine – clams casino!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
- 4 Tbsp. (59 ml) olive oil
- 5 large blue crabs (500 g), cleaned by the fishmonger to remove the gills and lungs
- 4 tsp. (20 g) kosher salt, divided
- 20 cracks black pepper, divided
- ½ tsp. dried oregano, divided
- 2 Tbsp. (30 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 8 cloves garlic, run through a garlic press
- 1 cup fresh parsley, minced
- 3 sprigs fresh basil
- 1 sprig fresh oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Arbol chile
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 3 oil-packed anchovy fillets (about .5 ounce/14 g) – TFD prefers Ortiz brand
- 56 oz. (1588 g) canned whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon granulated sugar (optional)
- 1 Tbsp. freshly-ground fennel seed (TFD addition, optional – remove if you prefer)
- 1 Tbsp. Red Boat 40 degrees fish sauce (TFD addition, optional – remove if you prefer)
- ½ cup (125 ml) Chablis
- ¼ cup (50 ml) brandy
- For the Spaghetti:
- 1 pound (454 g) dried spaghetti
- 1 Tbsp. gremolata seasoning, or more to taste (save extra in the fridge for other recipes), made by blending together:
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (1 cup packed, tender stems OK)
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- Zest of one lemon
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice (Meyer Lemon is especially nice)
- ½ cup olive oil
- ⅛– ¼ tsp. kosher salt
- ¼ tsp. pepper, more to taste
- pinch chili 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
- For the crab gravy:
- Heat the 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 dried 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, fish sauce (if using) 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.
- For the spaghetti:
- 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 ½ the total amount of the gremolata you plan to use in the recipe 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, add remaining gremolata to taste and serve.
- Category: Recipes
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