Sauce Vs. Gravy: The Great Italian-American Debate

About the long-standing debate over calling your pasta topping sauce or gravy?

As Italian immigrants flooded The United States in the 20th Century, clashes of the new and old world were inevitable. All aspects of the culture, including cooking and language would be altered in order to assimilate to the new American life but as the Italians settled, first on the east coast and then throughout the rest of the country, debates about words and references in Italian culture have surfaced. One bone of contention that seems to always stir up some controversy is the Sauce Vs. Gravy debate. How could such a minor detail become such a major issue amongst Italian Americans? The answer lies within the origin of both words, their counterparts in the Italian language.

Gravy for most Americans has a strong association with Thanksgiving turkey and roast beef. It’s usually a thick, dark sauce derived from meat. I imagine that if I were to entire a diner in certain parts of the country and ordered pasta with gravy, I would receive a plate of noodles smothered in a brown sauce, and served with equal parts befuddlement and disgust by the waitress. With each passing generation, the argument has become more and more heated but the origin of the words goes back to the Italian language and the words succo(juice),salsa(sauce)and ragu(meat sauce).

This explains a lot of the confusion, and yet still creates more. Words like succo and salsa were most likely changed into sauce and ragu is most likely the origin of gravy. Webster’s Dictionary defines gravy as “The juices that drip from cooking meat”, and defines sauce as “A flavorful seasoning or relish served as an accompaniment to food, especially a liquid dressing or topping for food.” The two definitions are pretty general and are open to a number of different interpretations. It seems that the truth behind the argument has been buried since our Italian ancestors first arrived in the USA. Regardless of which side of the battle lines you are on, that fact is, we may never be able to decipher which word is correct.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a sauce by any other name would taste as sweet.” -William Shakespeare(Italian Style)

I was hoping to find a definitive answer as to the correct usage of Sauce and Gravy but I have come to what I feel is a satisfying conclusion: Who Cares? You can call it whatever you like, I’m only truly interested in how it tastes. If you find yourself still heated about the argument then direct your attention to the little bit of Shakespeare above. I know, I know, the quote has been altered a bit, call it my Italian re-imagining. My only advice is that you have a good meal- whether it’s pasta and tomato sauce or macaroni and gravy.

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  1. Great article to tell my parents about, they always had this ‘discussion’ with those back in the old neighborhood.

  2. If meat was added to the tomato sauce, it was called gravy, if it was strictly vegetable, it was called sauce.

  3. The word for a tomato-based sauce that you put on pasta in Italian is ’sugo.’ A sauce with meat in it is often called ‘ragu.’ ‘Gravy’ seems like it is an Italian-American bastardization. The Italian word for ‘gravy’ is ‘intingolo,’ which is like the American gravy that goes on turkey at Thanksgiving but is a very infrequently used word–many Italians wouldn’t even know what ‘intingolo’ is.

  4. I can’t stand when people say “gravy” for italian sauce. Typically these people have never even been to Italy because if they had, they’d know “gravy” isn’t even an italian word.

  5. If meat is added to a sauce, it is called ragu… it is never ever ever called Gravy. No REAL italian calls it gravy. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out

  6. —therefore, as a third generation American of Italian (Neapollitan and Sicilian) heritage I would define sauce as Marinara which would be the incredible stewed plum tomato with Italian herbs. This same Marinara “sauce” would transform into “gravy” (c’mon we live in America) when one or more of the following such as braciole, meatballs and pork are added to the stewing process. It’s elementary my dear culinarians
    LOL

  7. I like to think of it this way – if it gets poured over pasta it’s “Sauce”. If it gets poured over meat it’s “Gravy”. But hey, what do I know, my father was only born in Italy! LMAO

  8. Gosh! Those who are so rude about the gravy argument and “more italian” because they don’t say gravy…my sicilian grandmother Lily Battaglia said “gravy”. I doubt she was any less ” real” Italian than any other Italian American.

  9. are you italian because i don\’t think you are! im 100% Sicilian and we call it GRAVY!!!!! clown

  10. All of my grandparents emigrated from Abruzzi/Abruzzo in the 1880s. The red sauce put on pasta was called “gravy”. My Sicilian friends called it “pasta sugo”. Red sauce without any meat was “a la marinara” and pizza was only made white with a little olive oil, oregano/basil and anchovy. The juice put over “acini di pepe” or “rosa marina” or “pastina” was called either chicken soup or beef soup.

  11. By the way, my Paglia grandmother’s name was Maria Liberata.

  12. This is interesting … our family came from Abruzzo (L’Aquila) as well, and I have honestly NEVER heard a soul refer to it as gravy. It’s always “the sauce is going” … there aren’t many of us left to ask!

  13. I’ve been to Italy more than once…I called it gravy there (among family) and still call it that today. When I’m at the supper table and someone wants to call it sauce…hey no problem, the important thing I’m breaking bread, enjoying a delicious meal with friends /family…in the back of my mind I’ll enjoy my gravy.

  14. I asked my 1st generation Italian-American grandmother (parents from Naples, husband direct from Sicily) why she called her sauce gravy (or in Italian ragu-pronounced more like raw-you, not the commerical sauce pronuciation of ray-GU). She said she would show me the next time she made sauce.

    She made the meatballs and put them in a pan to fry using only the meat and a little water on the bottom of the pan. When they were done, she cooked the italian sausage again adding just a little water to the bottom of the pan.

    As a kid I was a little impatient, and said yes, you fried the meat, but why do you call it gravy?

    She pointed to the drippings and juice in the pan from the meat, and she said the secret to making good gravy was cooking everything in one pan.

    She then cut up the onions, added some virgin olive oil to the pan and sauteed the onions and garlic. The onions and garlic picked up the juices from the pan, and a rich brown gravy developed. She pointed to the pan and said see the gravy?

    She then dumped the onions into the pot and cooked her other vegetables in the same pan. After she put them in the pot, she put her tomatoes into the pan and cooked them. She used a spatula to put the cooked tomatoes into the pot and the pan was nearly clean.

    Add spices to the sauce/gravy and let cook for several hours (at least half a day)…

    The italian word for it is ragu, but it translates into meat sauce, which is a clunky two word translation, I am guessing the Italian-Americans in the northeast wanted a short one word description of the ragu and went with gravy. Tomato sauces without meat like marinara and seafood fra diablos were called sauce.

    My mother always called it sauce, and I do also…but that is why my grandmother called it gravy…

  15. I never heard of a real Italian calling it ragu….sorry. We call it gravy. Americans call it sauce. Yes, sugo is the word in Italian. Both my parents were born there, still have my family there, been there countless summers, speak it at home…gravy train all the way! And while we’re at it….it’s open / close the light not turn on / off the light. It comes from apri / chiudi which literally mean the former. ;)

  16. Btw the author may want to fix the typo…it’s “enter” the diner not “entire”

  17. Daniela that is BS, I will say this NO ONE IN ITALY OR SICILY CALLS SALSA GRAVY NO ONE!!!! Anyone from Italy would laugh . There is NO such word as gravy in Italian, this is a made up Italian American word from New York. Its either sauce or ragu thats it. Gravy is for turkey’s on Thanksgiving day. anyone who say’s they are from Italy and call it gravy is FLAT OUT lieying.

  18. Daniela that is BS, I will say this NO ONE IN ITALY OR SICILY CALLS SALSA GRAVY NO ONE!!!! Anyone from Italy would laugh . There is NO such word as gravy in Italian, this is a made up Italian American word from New York. Its either sauce or ragu thats it. Gravy is for turkey\’s on Thanksgiving day. anyone who say\’s they are from Italy and call it gravy is FLAT OUT lieying.

  19. it was always macaroni and gravy in our house,moms house.and grandmas house.

  20. My Grandparents came off the boat from Naples. My Father and his family were born and raised in Brooklyn – off of Hentry Street. Nobody every referred to it as anything but “Sauce” as in “We are having sauce” which properly tranlated meant the house was filled with Italian smells of the ’sauce’ simmering for
    around 3 hours on the stove. Sometimes to that would be
    added meatballs or sausage and less frequently, grounded
    meat. There wasn’t a distinction between the meat version or
    the straight sauce version…it was still…”we are having Sauce” with the exception that if it was Sunday, you could always
    guarantee that there would be meatballs and a sweet Italian
    sausage or two added to it. .
    Where distinctions WERE MADE, was in reference to the TYPE of pasta being cooked. For example: Most of the time ‘macaroni’ was used as a generic term for any kind of pasta but if you were having ‘Fusili’ as opposed to Spaghetti…you said “Fusilli” not pasta, spaghetti or macaroni and if you were having “Ziti” you said Ziti, all of which would be soon covered in a beautiful SAUCE.

    Sometimes the sauce might be on the lighter side as opposed to being heavier, like when tomato paste added in which case you’d use the correct pasta; for a heartier sauce with or without meat, definitely thicker Pasta like large Mostacolli, or conchigli. Often, Conchiglie pasta is called SHELLS of which my Aunts would say “we are having ’snails’ with sauce” and all the kids would laugh at the joke. American’s have used the generic term (Pasta) without specificity of the shape or thickness, thus you might find now generations of Americans even referring to Italian food cooking with pasta(s) as NOODLES.Of course noodles are attributed in Asian cooking as well as Italian and Swedish, German, Austria et al but Italian purists will always be on the snobby side of food issues and when it comes to authentic Italian rightfully so. We have to protect the heritage that formed much of this loved culture and even though there is diversity within it – there are some things that are more ‘verbally’ correct than others when it comes right down to it. But then again…la Passione d’italia!

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