This month, Local Cookbooks takes on Gravy Wars: South Philly Foods, Feuds & Attytudes by Lorraine Ranalli, which is a fascinating look at the South Philly gravy (aka tomato sauce) culture, describing in hilarious detail the endless debates that Lorraine’s family had (still has!) over the proper way to make gravy, and whose is best. The book, which includes at least 9 gravy recipes (with multiple variations), plus a plethora of other South Philly faves from scaloppini to pizza to biscotti, is certainly a must-have for anyone raised Italian in this area, and an entertaining read for the rest of us.

This is a different kind of cookbook. It has recipes, sure, but that’s not really the point. If your family makes gravy (or any of these other dishes), you probably don’t need a recipe. As Lorraine herself says in the introduction, “as you read this book, take the term ‘recipe’ lightly… knowing which tomatoes to use and how to season them for gravy is a combination of experience, instinct and taste, although that assertion is as much a source of controversy as the gravy itself.”

The reason I absolutely love this cookbook, however, is for the stories. Growing up in an Italian-American family – though my family was unique in its own way – these stories resonate as if Lorraine is talking about them. Non-Italians who have their own family food traditions should also find these stories fitting and nostalgic, if about different recipes. I also loved reading through the “glossary” at the end of the book, which offers the South Philly version of a word, the Italian version, and the English definition. (Example: Foomadge / Formaggio / Cheese)

Though we usually include a recipe from the book with our “local cookbooks” series, I’ve decided instead to honor the idea of Gravy Wars by including my own gravy recipe. Of course, as with all the chefs profiled in Gravy Wars, I don’t really have one. I cook it by feel, and change ingredients and spices based on what season it is and what I have on hand. But, just for this article, I wrote down what I did one recent Sunday and humbly share it with you know. I’m quite sure your grandmother’s is better, but my family sure enjoyed it over some “managott”.

Mike’s MLD Gravy

  • 2 25oz cans whole peeled San Marzanos
  • 1 6oz can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 2 whole cloves
  • (calm down, they are just spices)
  • 1 tsp sugar*
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp dried Italian herbs
  • Garlic (4-6 cloves), divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more
  • Heaping handful of fresh basil

*it’s best to taste the raw tomatoes before adding sugar to judge natural sweetness. Add more or less sugar depending on what you have naturally.

Mix together the first 9 ingredients, using a potato masher to crush tomatoes
Smash & chop half the garlic and mix in to pot.
Simmer for 3-5 hours.
Remove bay leaves, anise and cloves.
Smash the remaining garlic, chop and add; also add 1/4 cup olive oil and basil (roughly ripping up as you add).
Mix together and cook for 10-15 more minutes.

Gravy Wars: South Philly Foods, Feuds & Attytudes
by Lorraine Ranalli
Folger Ross Publications, 2009
Buy on Amazon

Note: A complimentary review copy was provided to MLD.