Crab cakes, dip take the bows for backstage caterer


After 15 years of satisfying the culinary whims of concer greats such as Pavarotti, Springsteen and Sinatra, backstage caterer par excellence John D'Anna has learned a valuable lesson he'd like to share.

It has nothing to do with soothing out-of-control egos or filling outrageous demands for exotic food and drink. Instead, it applies to anyone faced with feeding a horde of hungry people:

Don't run out of food!

Obvious, you say? Not really . . . at least, not if you're feeding the hundreds of musicians, crew members, friends and hangers-on that make up a touring star's entourage. A backstage food shortage can be a disaster on a scale that most people can't imagine.

"The biggest problem I ever saw was with Guns N' Roses, who had brought in a horrible chef," recalls Mr. D'Anna, rolling his eyes at the memory of being summoned to the Capital Centre from his Howard County home to remedy the situation. "The chef didn't know what he was doing and ran out of food at a lunch for hundreds of people.

"And you can't run out of food!"

Mr. D'Anna's solution? "I ran into a Giant deli and bought the entire top shelf."

Most of us will never have to worry about serving 300 dinners to a mob of half-starved musicians and roadies. Still, home chefs may find useful a few tips from this culinary maestro, who learned his art at the Palmer House, the venerable downtown restaurant started by his father, Tom D'Anna, more than 40 years ago.

His first tip: Keep it simple.

"Know your limitations," he advises. "And remember that green beans will please almost everybody -- but asparagus won't."

And his second tip: "When entertaining a crowd at home, stick to what you do best."

For Mr. D'Anna, that often means fixing a huge batch of his easy-to-make, award-winning crab cakes -- especially if Bruce Springsteen is scheduled at a local arena.

"When Springsteen comes to town, he always wants my crab cakes," Mr. D'Anna says. "When they get off the bus, they know what they're having for dinner!"

For Luciano Pavarotti, a visit to Crabtown is synonymous with -- you guessed it -- crab cakes ala D'Anna.

"I first met Pavarotti four years ago when he was in Baltimore to do a benefit at the Baltimore Arena," recalls the 42-year-old chef. "He had a new sound system, and his sound check stretched into an entire rehearsal. Nothing had been ordered to eat, so I sent to the Palmer House for a dozen crab cakes.

The reaction amounted to a standing ovation.

"Within minutes, Pavarotti came out of the dressing room and boomed, 'Can we get more of these?' "

In fact, the Italian tenor's passion for the Baltimore caterer's crab cakes led to a command performance for President Bush and a party of dignitaries last July.

"The president wanted a reception for the prime minister of Japan before Pavarotti's show at the Capital Centre," Mr. D'Anna says. "So the day before the concert, I got a call from Pavarotti's people to cater it."

Mr. D'Anna admits to one concession that he made for the presidential party: "I made sure there was no broccoli in the vegetable dip."

Mr. D'Anna's Backstage Catering has become a behind-the-scenes fixture at the Capital Centre, D.A.R. Constitution Hall, the Baltimore Arena, Merriweather Post Pavilion and other major venues around Baltimore and Washington.

But catering to the elite has its drawbacks. For example, Mr. D'Anna had a Secret Service escort watching his every move as he prepared the repast for the Bush reception. And Madonna is "hard to work for -- very demanding. With big personalities, you have to cross every 't' and dot every 'i,' " he says.

But many stars also go out of their way to be friendly. "Springsteen's a nice guy who stops and talks to you," Mr. D'Anna says. "After a sound check, he'll go out on the parking lot of the Capital Centre and drink a beer with fans. Their jaws drop!"

Big-name artists and their fans are alike in other ways. Over the years, Mr. D'Anna has found their tastes evolving: They're increasingly health conscious -- as revealed in the food they request backstage.

"For example, no fried foods -- I broil my crab cakes now instead of frying them," Mr. D'Anna says. "And I don't see as much drug and alcohol abuse."

Here are two of Mr. D'Anna's prize-winning recipes, which garnered first and third place respectively in the 1982 Baltimore Crab Cooking Olympics: hot crab dip and Maryland crab cakes. Mr. D'Anna recommends serving the dip with an assortment of crackers. "Whole wheat and water biscuits are our favorites," he notes.

Although most Marylanders once fried their crab cakes, broiling is now the preferred method. "Coat a pan with a little oil to prevent sticking and broil the cakes about 10 minutes, or until they turn golden brown," Mr. D'Anna says. "Don't turn them."

Hot crab dip

1 pound special or back fin crab meat

2 pounds cream cheese

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

After picking through the crab meat to remove shell fragments, mix the ingredients and place in a ceramic or glass baking dish. Bake at 400 degrees until the mixture is bubbling and turns a light golden brown-- about 20 minutes.

Maryland crab cakes

Yields four crab cakes

1 egg

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 slice white bread, crust removed

1 pound back fin or lump crab meat

Gently pick through the crab meat, removing shell fragments; reserve. (Hint: Do this on a paper towel to absorb the moisture from the packing ice.) Tear the white bread into squares, about a half-inch in size. ( Don't cut the bread or it will bind.)

Combine all ingredients except the bread and crab meat in a mixing bowl and mix with a wire whip. Then mix the bread cubes into the mixture.

Next, fold the mixture and crab meat together and pat into four cakes. To pan fry, use a light coating of oil in a skillet and saute the cakes about 4 minutes to a side, turning once.

"Although most people serve crab cakes with tartar sauce or mustard, I always serve them with Worcestershire sauce," Mr. D'Anna says.

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