At St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy, parishioners call Lucy Pompa the matriarch of meatballs, ravioli and the thick red sauce she calls gravy.
She presided yesterday over an assembly line of volunteers, joining them in making about 6,000 meatballs that will be added to hundreds of gallons of spicy tomato sauce for the church's biannual spaghetti and ravioli supper today.
Pompa, 88, and several other women had earlier kneaded homemade dough into 14,000 pasta squares and stuffed them with ricotta cheese.
She will be back in the church hall before noon today to oversee supper for a few thousand.
"Luce," as most call her, knows her pasta but has no illusions about her title and stature.
"It's because I am the oldest, they got to respect me," she said as she shaped a handful of spiced beef and pork into a perfect meatball. "And, half us here are related."
By "us here," she said, she meant not only the volunteers, but the entire neighborhood.
"I like being here with these people," she said. "We are all good friends and good workers for our church."
If tradition holds, about 2,000 diners will gather today for a fundraising feast that is steeped in family traditions, cooked with closely guarded ingredients and made from a century of devotion to a church that is the heart of a neighborhood.
None of the volunteers was certain about what year the dinners began.
"I have been cooking at them since I was in elementary school," said Philomena Abruzzese, 80, who after two hours had to sit down on the job. "My legs get tired, but my arms don't stop."
Some dug into the savory meat with an ice-cream scoop to ensure an even meatball. Even an 8-year-old knew the main rule of meatball making.
"No cracks," said Leo Lavezza, standing at a table opposite his 6-year-old brother Anthony.
"It will fall apart if there's cracks," said Leo, who then added to Anthony: "Squish that one and do it over."
The volunteers are mostly seniors, and they never seem to stop working, talking and joking.
"The older people, they believe in working until the end," said the Rev. Michael Salerno, St. Leo's pastor. "They don't want breaks."
Joe Lavezza, father of the youngest volunteers and chairman of the event for the past 10 years, said he has an army of octogenarians he can call on.
"They have bad legs and backs, but no matter what, they come to help," he said.
Even volunteers who have left the parish come back to cook and, of course, return for supper.
"I bring all six grandchildren, so the dinner costs me a fortune," said Nancy Menefee, 75.
She arrived late from her home in Towson yesterday and quickly took a place in line. She recalled her upbringing in Little Italy and her marriage at St. Leo's, where she still attends Mass.
"When my husband moved me to Towson 50 years ago, I used to cry that I wanted to go home," she said.
Menefee was rolling meatballs as part of a team with Jim Plowden of Timonium. If the surname sounds out of place, he reminded the crowd that he had married a Little Italy girl in 1960 and has been coming back ever since.
"We let him stay," said Menefee.
The supper is such a tradition in the Plowden family that he ships dinners overnight to grown children in Seattle and Salt Lake City.
"We all come back with our families and buy what we have cooked," said Abruzzese.
Pompa will disclose nearly all the makings of the meatballs but holds back a secret something that makes for the signature taste, she said.
"We don't fool around," said Frank Sudano, 68. "The ingredients are top-of-the-line, nothing but the best. It's easier to buy frozen, but you can't beat homemade."
Pompa insists that finished meatballs be placed in neat rows on the trays and covered with a thin layer of olive oil.
"The rows have to be 10 down and six across. If not, Lucy will fire you," Sudano said.
Joe Campitelli takes the filled trays and pops them in the commercial oven. He rules the kitchen, watching the ovens and several 60-gallon caldrons simmering on the stove, all while chopping garlic, Italian flat-leaf parsley -- none of that curly stuff for him -- and pounds of onions, without shedding a tear. He will be back today cooking ravioli.
Campitelli, 73, owns a farm in Westminster but spends most of the week in Little Italy, where he teaches a cooking class at the church. He has no idea how long he has had kitchen duty.
"Years ago, a guy asked me to watch the sauce and said he would be right back," Campitelli said. "I have been here ever since."
Christopher Mazzulli, his "sous chef," said, "That was the first story he told me, and I keep waiting for him to ask me to watch the sauce."
Within three hours, the volunteers had covered all the latest family news, turned 600 pounds of meat into meatballs and got the sauce going. Only then did they break for lunch -- meatball subs.
For the record, Pompa is not the oldest volunteer -- just the senior cook.
Donde Bruni, 95, was pushing a handcart filled with empty cartons to the trash bin. He said he does "the heavy work, but no cooking."
And Mary Tersi, 101, takes a pass on meatball production so she can be rested for the 3,000 salads that she will make today.
Dinner is served from noon to 6 p.m. at the church hall, 912 Stiles St. Cost is $9. Carryout is available for $9.50 at the church. Information: 410-675-7275.