For the love of gravy

By Joseph Myers

As Sunday’s 4th Annual East Passyunk Red Gravy Cook-off commenced at Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, attendees heard the pleasant strains of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.” It was a fitting tune considering that a love for pasta’s pal – red gravy – had brought a crowd of 200 guests together.  The cook-off began with guests sampling 15 gravies, and ended with an unprecedented voting decision.

As the crowd grew, Samantha Gross, who organized the event for the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association, kept busy trying to find more plates and cups to accommodate the throngs. “We experienced a problem that every event planner dreams of – we had a much bigger turn-out than last year – nearly 80 more. Luckily, we had amazing resources to pull everything off, and, in the end, everybody got sauced,” she said with a laugh.

“This event takes one of the many Italian-American traditions of the East Passyunk neighborhood – enjoying a pot of gravy with family – and blends it with the new neighborhood that’s developing around that culture,” said Darren Fava, who conceived the cook-off concept with fellow attendee John Raab. “We wanted to combine a food Italian-Americans love with the foodies who have come to love – and live in – our community.”  

Gross, who has lived in East Passyunk for a year, loved the mix of people the event attracted, “It’s great to see community and business leaders dining next to residents with their extended families. I’m very impressed at the outpouring of support from the community, especially the generous donations from our sponsors.”

Those donations included bread from South Philly’s New York Bakery, espresso from Rival Bros., vegan meatballs from Triangle Tavern, and Pennsylvania wine donated by Vin Café. The event helped the civic generate funds for its community-centric efforts.

“No matter what we involve ourselves in, we’re always trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what interests people in our neighborhood, and gravy, as we can all see by the response we’re receiving, is a unifier,” said EPX Civic president Leon Malloy.  This is Malloy’s first major undertaking since assuming his role in January.

The crowd heard of the event largely through social media outreach, but Laura Valenti did not need technology to convince her to participate.

“I do it for love, not out of any feeling that I’m exceptional at it,” the Grays Ferry resident said of preparing gravy. “I could eat pasta every day, so I understand the attraction to making a pot for people to enjoy with it, but never would I have thought to enter a competition.”  Her meat-infused gravy was one of nine such offerings that captivated carnivores. Other entries were seafood-based or marinara sauces.

Valenti was encouraged to pitt her gravy against the 14 other entrants at the suggestion of relatives. She was content just to receive positive feedback. Then Malloy announced the decision of judges Maria di Marco, owner of Mamma Maria Ristorante Italiano; First District Councilman Mark Squilla; and Geno Vento, the proprietor of Geno’s Steaks.  They deemed Valenti’s gravy the best they’d tasted this year. Valenti was overwhelmed as she shook hands with the judges and was presented with an honorary plaque.

A moment later, she was overjoyed when she received the Crowd Favorite crown, becoming the first double-victor in the competition’s history.

EPX Red Gravy Cook-off winner Laura Valenti (holding plaque) with (left to right) Geno Vento, Councilman Mark Squilla, ‘Mamma’ Maria di Marco, and Leon Malloy.

“Everyone here told me it was good,” Valenti, who walked away with $400 in prize money. “I’m just going to keep on making it and serving to people like I always have, with love.”

While individual bragging rights belong to the triumphant cook, Malloy said he and the EPX Civic board were satisfied with a successful event, “We want to keep building this event because it’s a great way to promote our neighborhood, meet awesome people, and give credit where it’s due – to some phenomenal gravy makers.”