Italian "red gravy" cuisine
What: South Philly, once an industrial base for the city, has attracted Italian immigrants since the mid-1800s (along with Irish, Polish, African-American, and many others today). Pockets of the area are still largely Italian-American, and they happen to be among the Italian descendants in this country who call red pasta sauce “gravy” (if you disagree with this terminology, don’t bother arguing about it, because the correct Italian to English translation of that red stuff on your pasta is always going to be whatever your nonna said it was). Restaurants referred to as “red gravy” Italian typically offer homestyle Italian-American classics heavy on the tomato and garlic: your lasagna and baked ziti, your shrimp scampi, your veal parm. Such restaurants are aplenty here, and are not to be confused with more contemporary or refined “Italian” Italian restaurants. But although some people use the term “red-gravy/red-sauce restaurant” in a derogatory sense, don’t be dissuaded: When it’s good, it’s damn good—hearty comfort food all the way.
Where: Since 1899, Dante & Luigi’s (762 South 10th St., map) has been representative of this genre, down to the white tablecloths, valet parking, and bottled sauces—er, gravies—for sale. Housed in two converted townhouses, the historic candlelit space is very cozy. Unlike some other area Italian restaurants, it’s not BYOB, unfortunately.
When: Tues-Thurs, 11:30am-9:30pm; Fri, 11:30am-10:30pm; Sat, 3pm-10:30pm; Sun, 3pm-9:30pm
Order: If you’re going old-school, you’re going spaghetti with “Italian gravy and meatballs” ($17.95), a generous mound of thin spaghetti and two plump, herb-specked beef meatballs that’s not only super comforting—it’s really delicious. The gravy in question is deep red and on the sweet side, but not overly so. Another winner is the homemade gnocchi Romano, made with ricotta and Romano cheese in a creamy pink rosetta sauce: The light, pillowy gnocchi are downright addicting. On a slightly healthier note, the restaurant’s “special salad,” with provolone, salami, peppers, and olives, makes a nice starter, as well as the broccoli rabe and eggplant parmigiana.
Alternatively: Other “red gravy” local favorites are Villa di Roma (215-592-1295; 936 South 9th St., map) in the Italian Market, and historic, family-owned Marra’s (1734 E. Passyunk Ave., map), which has terrific spaghetti pomodoro and good thin-crust pizza.