Chef Joey’s menu at Palizzi has a broad Southern Italian scope. Seventy adaptable, accessible recipes throughout include dishes like:
- Fennel and Orange Salad
- Arancini with Ragu and Peas
- Spaghetti with Crabs
- Hazelnut Torrone
Come on in, and join the club.
Spaghetti and Crabs
The most popular dishes on the menu at the Club are the most quintessentially South Philly things: 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 down here also 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.
Like in Maryland nearby, blue crabs are the dominant species down the shore in South Jersey, to which many South Philly families decamp to escape the brutal summers in the city. This is a dish strongly associated with that time of year when our usual Sunday gravy hearty with meatballs, sausages, Braciole, or braising cuts of beef and pork takes a vacation in favour 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 flavour. Clam juice is another unusual ingredient in our crab gravy. You know when you open canned tomatoes, empty them out, and you add some water to swirl around to collect those bits left behind in the can? Instead of water, which adds no flavour, we add the clam juice, which punches up the gravy’s oceanic profile for no extra work.
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 to hedge your bets. Whomever you’re cooking for, you want them to have something they can get into. White shirts should be left at home.
MAKES 11/2 QUARTS (1.4 L)
1 ⁄4 cup (59 ml) blended oil*
5 large blue crabs (500 g), cleaned
4 teaspoons salt, divided
20 cracks black pepper, divided
1 ⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano, divided
1 (28-ounce [794 g]) cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 ⁄4 teaspoon granulated sugar (optional)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ⁄2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 ⁄2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup (60 g) fresh parsley
3 sprigs basil
1 sprig oregano
1 bay leaf
1 Arbol chile
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets
1 ⁄2 cup (125 ml) Chablis
1 ⁄4 cup (59 ml) brandy
1 ⁄2 cup (125 ml) clam juice
1 cup (240 ml) water
Heat the blended oil in a large Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Evenly 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 in colour, about 5 minutes. Flip and continue to sear for 5 minutes. Remove the top shells and reserve. Flip the crabs again and sear the insides until dark brown, about 6 minutes. Remove the browned crabs and set aside 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. Set aside at room temperature.
Wipe out the pot, making sure to remove any burned crab parts that might be 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 anchovies. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the paste turns from bright red to copper. Return the crabs and reserved shells to the pot. Pour the Chablis 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 the 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 bits. Add the mixture to the pot along with the water and lower the heat to maintain a slow simmer. Cook for 2 hours, partially covered, gently stirring about every 10 minutes, then let 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 set aside at room temperature.
Set a chinois (conical strainer) over a clean pot. Working in batches, ladle the cooked sauce into the china cap, pressing as much into the clean pot as possible. Be sure to scrape everything off the outside of the chinois with a rubber spatula into the strained sauce. Discard the remaining solids. Stir the sauce well and keep over low heat.
1 pound (454 g) dried spaghetti
1 ⁄4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 very small pinch red pepper flakes
1 ⁄4 cup (59 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons 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, combine the garlic, red pepper flakes, and half of the olive oil in 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 and 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 empty pot used to cook the pasta and bring to a simmer. Place the cooked crabs in the simmering water. When warm, 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.
*Throughout the book you’ll also see us call for “blended oil,” mostly in recipes for salad dressings (where straight olive oil would be too assertive) and for searing meat (which requires a higher smoke point). To make blended oil, combine one part extra-virgin olive oil with three parts canola oil. We keep it in a plastic squeeze bottle for easy use. Any dishes that call for deep-frying, we use canola oil.
Reprinted with permission from DINNER AT THE CLUB © 2019 by Joey Baldino and Adam Erace, Running Press