For at least four more Sunday mornings and one more Sunday evening this season, Ravens fans will gather hours before the game for a tailgating experience that in just a dozen years has risen to the top of the NFL ranks.
For some tailgaters, it's about the food; for some, the friendship.
In the necklace of parking lots that encircle M&T Bank Stadium, eastside lots G and H are considered prime tailgating turf. They are among the few specially designated "hot lots," which are designated for grilling. Their proximity to a light rail stop means that late-arriving friends can waltz into tailgates already in progress. On rainy Sundays, shelter can be found underneath the offramps and road interchanges that converge near the stadium
Ask around, and you hear about the superstars of Lots G and H. Just across the strip of sidewalk that divides Lot G from Lot H, there's a regular group of mostly old Gilman School buddies. Like many here, Gian Alecce's group has been coming to tailgate before Ravens home games since 1998, when the stadium went, at least officially, by the name NFL Stadium at Camden Yards. Before every home game, Alecce tends his enormous Weber Ranch Kettle — 3 feet in diameter — handling the customary sausage, pork tenderloin and his beloved beef tenderloin. His secret? Alecce begins with an overnight marinade in olive oil and basil, and then a pre-grilling application of black pepper and sea salt. Then, every time he flips the tenderloin on the grill, he coats it with butter. It's a New Orleans thing.
If you're invited to Ed Naworol's tailgate on Lot H — and hope that you will be someday — don't show up with a store-bought pie. It won't be appreciated, and it won't be served. Naworol, a Bel Air mortgage manager, is one of the veterans of the M&T Bank Stadium tailgating scene.
In those early years, before Naworol laid down the law, his group would be a procession of "guys with wings, some potato chips and beer, and then some more guys with wings."
Now the group has marching orders, which Naworol begins devising in April, just after the NFL releases the season schedules. Surveying the lineup of visiting teams, he devises the eight themes for the upcoming season's home games. For the Patriots' visit, for instance, the tailgate was a New England boiled dinner. The Saints' arrival in December suggests a New Orleans-style seafood feast.
But even before this, the native of Johnstown, Pa., has to reconcile the Ravens home schedule with those of the Steelers and the Eagles — he is a season ticket holder for all three teams. (It's true — Naworol, a native of Johnstown, Pa., never misses a game in Pittsburgh if he can help it. The Philadelphia trips are partly business.)
"I'm super-organized," Naworol explains.
Theme weeks aside, some of his group have their weekly assignments. These might be group favorites, like meatballs or Cajun crab dip, or supplies like sodas — the family responsible for bringing soda has to remember Naworol's beloved Coke Zero.
Among the Naworol regulars are professional chefs and former tavern owners. At the Oct. 24 game against the Bills, the group had its first-ever cook-off, a three-man ribs throwdown (For the record, first place was taken by "Whiplash" John Blevins, second by Jerry Mikulski and third by Jason Price.) This year, the usual Polish theme Naworol plans for the annual Cincinnati game will be supplemented by a chili cook-off. Naworol hopes to eventually build a Ravens-related cooking contest into a stadiumwide annual event. For the Nov. 7 game against the Miami Dolphins, Naworol has an Italian feast planned.
But what if you don't have Ravens tickets, much less a parking pass? No ticket, no car, no parking — no tailgate, right?
Not necessarily. The tailgate experience is open and accessible to anyone who can get to M&T Bank Stadium on a Ravens home date. The Ravens Walk area is primarily intended for the thousands of fans who arrive on foot or via light rail, or who have parked their cars too far away to make a traditional tailgate — the kind that actually unfolds out of the back of a vehicle — a practical possibility.
Starting three hours before every home game, fans gather in the Ravens Walk area, located on the walkway leading from Oriole Park to M&T Bank Stadium, in between lots B and C. Many NFL teams offer some version of this fan experience, but ones as elaborate as the Ravens are usually found in warmer cities.
Gabrielle Dow, the Ravens vice president of marketing, says that Ravens Walk is designed as a whole-family experience, with live entertainment, DJs and large-screen TVs showing packaged sports programming. Area restaurants, especially those with a presence in the stadium's neighborhood, are there. The Greene Turtle sells chicken wings and sliders; Pickles Pub boasts what it calls Baltimore's best Bloody Mary bar.
For the novice looking for an authentic tailgating experience, Ravens Walk is a good place to start. It helps build endurance and stamina for the real parking lot experience.
And not every group on Lots G and H is as intense as Naworol's. Over the years, a large group of Pikesville residents on Lot G have established a host rotation system among eight smaller contingents. The hosts arrive when the lot opens, about five hours before kickoff, and the majority arrive for a prepared buffet about three hours later.
And for the very late-risers, the chronically disorganized and the noncookers, there are other options. These include the tailgate packages prepared by area supermarkets — Giant is the Ravens tailgating sponsor — and restaurants like the Greene Turtle and Pickles Pub. Free-flowing alcohol and specialty cocktails are essential, and store-bought wings and sandwiches are perfectly acceptable fare.
Just don't tell Ed Naworol.
Ed's Boiled Dinner
1 bulb of garlic
3/4-1 cup old bay or Zatarans spicy crab and shrimp boil seasoning
6 quarts of water
1 large crab pot with steamer basket if possible
Use approximately equal portions of each:
1-5 pounds of potatoes (small red is best, cut up in halves or quarters)
12-18 ears of corn, broken in half
1-5 pounds of smoked Kielbasa
1-5 pounds of 16-20 count raw shrimp in shells
Add water to pot and start boiling. Add seasoning, lemon, onion and garlic to water to create marinade. When water is boiling, add potatoes. After the water returns to boil, wait 10 more minutes, then add corn. After water returns to boil, wait 10 more minutes, then add kielbasa. After water returns to boil, wait 5 more minutes and add shrimp. Boil 2-3 minutes, until shrimp turns pink.
Pull the basket out of the pot and let drain. Dump in aluminum serving pans & serve.
Note: Can be served with extra Old bay and mustard for the shrimp and kielbasa and spray butter for corn on the side.
Courtesy of Ed Naworol
The Ravens' website offers tips for tailgaters:
•Bring plenty of chairs so people aren't left standing.
•If the weather is warm, put up a tent so people don't get too hot.
•Make sure the food fits the weather (i.e., chili when it's cold or ice-cold drinks when it's hot).
•Avoid messy foods like saucy wings.
•If you're handling meats, be sure to bring hand sanitizer.
•Get the music pumping to get your tailgate jumping.
•Clean up your area when you are finished.
•Don't throw footballs too close to the grills.