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City Folk

The Ravioli Queen of Baltimore

Lucy Pompa, a matriarch of Little Italy, has made thousands of ravioli

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano


How many ravioli do you think Lucy Palmere Pompa has made—by hand—in almost 95 years of life in Baltimore?

Her nephew Willie Matricciani, 54, who calls on her every time he has to remember exactly how to season ricotta for the filling, is overwhelmed by the question:

“I don’t think a million is an unrealistic number,” says Matricciani, a local fence magnate who grew up a block away from “Aunt Lucy” on Exeter Street back when Little Italy was still a neighborhood of Italian-Americans raising children. Lucy’s son Dominic “Chuppers” Pompa, 63, an engineer at Northrop Grumman, takes an analytical approach.

“Let’s see,” he says. “We grew up in a family of five, plus my grandfather; out of 52 Sundays we had ravioli maybe a dozen Sundays a year, and she’d make eight dozen each time. That’s at least as long as I’ve been born.

“And then, let’s say for the 40 years she’s made them twice a year for the St. Leo ravioli dinner, where a bunch of ladies do 10,000 to 12,000 each time. Of course, none of this includes all the ones she made with her mother as a kid.”

Doing the math in his head—times this, times that, divided by the other thing, all covered with cheese—Lucy’s oldest son computes, “I’d say about 75,000 ravioli, give or take . . . ”

Folks who have know Lucy all their lives and call throughout the day to make sure she’s OK are sure the number is at least twice that much.

Sitting at her kitchen table—brown-and-white Formica, the perfect smooth surface for rolling out pasta dough—Lucy sums up the equation as only the Queen of Ravioli can.

“Oh my God,” she says. “I’ve made so many I see ’em in my sleep.”

 

From the back door of Lucy Pompa’s kitchen you can see the old School Sisters of Notre Dame convent, where the nuns who taught at the St. Leo grade school lived (in ever diminishing numbers) before the school closed in 1980.

Lucy sits at the table with her daughter Rosanna, 62, her mother’s confidante, all-around helper and best friend. You ask Lucy a question and Rosanna answers. But for the most sacred of questions, Rosanna defers to the expert.

What is the secret to making the perfect ravioli?

“Good dough, good ricotta,” says Lucy. “And it’s important how you fill them. Just a scoop with [less than] a tablespoon. If you put in too much ricotta, they’ll break open when you cook them.”

The square pillows that become ravioli are made from dough rolled thin and shaped by hand. One end is then folded over the filling (ricotta, seasoned simply, is traditional) and crimped. The key to making sure the ravioli doesn’t come apart in boiling water—the crimping—is what Lucy calls “forking.”

“You bend [the tines] of the fork back a little bit so it’s more curved,” says Lucy. “That way you close them up good without the fork tearing the dough.”

“Yep,” says Rosanna. “That’s the secret.”

While the magic in Lucy Pompa’s ravioli and sauce lie deep in her memory (tomato sauce differs by degrees from family to family), the pasta champ’s stats are written in an old phone book with a torn cover.

The book is filled with generations of phone numbers—many crossed out because of death, most from the days when you didn’t need the area code—along with birthdays and anniversaries and data from decades of church suppers at St. Leo the Great. Lucy turns the page to 1992.

She turns to a page in which she has logged details from the St. Leo church ravioli supper of 1992.

Eggs: Four crates.

Ricotta: 600 pounds.

Flour: 325 pounds.

Trays of ravioli: 205; 60 per tray.

Total ravioli: 12,300

“We get people from all over coming to help and learn, people who’ve never made ravioli before,” says Lucy Pompa of the spring and fall tradition. “We welcome everybody.”

 

Lucy Palmere Pompa was born on Nov. 7, 1918, the fifth of nine children of Nicholas Palmere and the former Rose DeLoia, immigrants from the wheat-growing province of Foggia. The couple traveled from Italy on the same boat and married at St. Leo not long after landing in Baltimore.

Here, the family went into police work and the building trades, particularly masonry for the sewage—and patronage—system under 1950s Baltimore mayor and neighbor Thomas “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro Jr.

Pompa goes back to the days when organ grinders kept their monkeys on President Street and the area around the recently closed Della Notte restaurant was a railroad freight office. After Pompa finished the eighth grade, her mother died of pneumonia. As the oldest girl, she had to leave school to care for the brood while her father worked.

One of many enduring stories of her generosity is the one about a wedding dress. Not long after World War II, Lucy was set to marry the late Vincent Joseph Pompa and a gown was bought. But before the big day, her younger sister Rosetta, known as Fanny and one of Lucy’s two surviving siblings, announced she was also getting married.

“Fanny couldn’t afford a wedding gown,” said Lucy. “So I let her wear mine first.”

Such selflessness—many tens of thousands of ravioli and acts of kindness known only to a few—was commemorated this past Sunday (Aug. 18) on the streets outside of Pompa’s home during the 84th annual St. Gabriel festival in Little Italy.

The longtime president of the St. Gabriel Confraternity and now an honorary officer, Pompa was given a special rosary, its beads the pale violet associated with the 19th-century saint—the patron of Catholic youth—and adorned with a likeness of his face.

She rode shotgun in a vintage Dodge convertible at the head of the procession, holding an umbrella against a drizzle with one hand and waving with the other. And then, Pompa gathered up the strength of her 94 years and stood behind a food stand, frying dough to be sprinkled with powdered sugar and sold for the benefit of her beloved church.

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